Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Lillian Li

Number One Chinese Restaurant

Lillian Li’s debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, revolves around the private lives of characters in orbit around a very public space: an upscale Peking Duck restaurant in Maryland. Jumping between the points of view of various characters, Li balances the political ramifications of each character's struggles with their particular emotional and personal realities. Her writing never feels polemic or didactic, but we are able to understand, as we read, the familial tensions that develop between brothers Jimmy and Johnny. They debate whether to keep the duck house faithful to their father’s original vision or update it to bring in a new generation of customers, and their conversational dynamic reflects deeper concerns about the proper way for immigrants to live in their new country. Should they stick to the old ways, honor the traditional modes of living? Or discover a new way of being in the world?

For those readers who have spent time in the service industry, Li’s depiction of life behind the scenes at the Beijing Duck House will have familiar emotional resonance. Her writing is informed by her own brief employment as a waitress in a Peking Duck restaurant in Madison, Wisc., and that expertise shows in the intuitive way she handles the particular physical and emotional frustrations of restaurant work. From the complicated personal entanglements that develop behind the scenes, to the strain of keeping things upbeat for the customers, to the sheer physical exhaustion of coming home at the end of a long day with aching feet and sore arms from holding all those dishes, her depiction of life on the other side of the table is artfully rendered and deeply felt. Whether you’ve waited tables, cooked, or just dined at them, Number One Chinese Restaurant will bring a new depth to your perception of life on the other side of the kitchen door.

Number One Chinese Restaurant

by Lillian Li
Henry Holt and Co., 304 pg., $27

Li will speak at “Forged Families in Favorite New Fiction" at 1:30pm, Saturday, Oct. 27, in Capitol Extension Rm. E2.030 with Aja Gabel.

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