Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

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3.5 stars rounded to 4

Number One Chinese Restaurant is a truly original tale of the innermost secrets of a Chinese family-owned restaurant. Behind the accents and the shuffling of Asian flavors is a poignant look at the relationships that build a microcosm of love, loyalty, and interconnection. And the dark side of doing business.

Jimmy Han has his eye on opening a restaurant better than the one left by his father’s legacy. Beyond the doors of the Duck House lies a dream of opening the best Chinese restaurant in Maryland. But inside the doors of the Duck House, there is love, control, power but most importantly history. Jimmy is one step closer to opening up Glory, but his loyal brother Johnny has other ideas for the original Beijing Duck House of Maryland famous for its Northern Chinese cuisine. That fateful night where fire engulfs the restaurant will be the twist of fate for many. And change does not fare ware for the characters of this story.

The narrative is told by multiple characters, Jimmy, Johnny, Ah-Jack, Nan, Pat, and Annie. The stories are told in the present tense but each waiter, manager, son, daughter and business owner have their own cards that fall on the floor. Jimmy is struggling to find his own path through the restaurant business but his family always tempers his full ability. Ah-Jack, a full-time waiter, is tired and suffering from his ailments and old habits. Nan, the manager is trying to raise a teenage child while hiding her affection for Ah-Jack. And then there is Johnny, the brother who comes back into the picture with his own interest in mind.

This story is an emotional journey from beginning to end. Its pace is fluid and shifts from present tense to past rememberances. It is not clear initially how the chapters will be set up but this is part of the uniqueness of the story. Several aspects of this story are confusing and drawn out but the relationships between the characters are most poignant.

The interactions between waiter Ah-Jack and manager Nan is endearing. From their first meeting at her new job at the Mayflower, the slow courtship, to the reversal of roles at the Duck House, we see the love build slowly and confoundingly. But Ah-Jack has a picture of another in his wallet. His wife is at home being treated for cancer. But Ah-Jack can bearly pay for her treatment or keep his job. Time has ravaged his life, his marriage, and his dignity.

And the Han family has their own traditional Chinese dynamics. Feng Fei, the mother of Jimmy and Johnny is a caustic, matriarch who is self-absorbed and hard on her children. Jimmy always wanted to be a chef, but in his struggle to fit in he always found a way to be an outlier. His desire to be his own story with his own restaurant will resonate with anybody living in another’s shadow. And Jimmy and Johnny who are always at odds have a co-dependent relationship as two brothers, one the rescuer of the other’s calamity. However, with all the friction between the characters, loyalty and family reign most important.

The pulse of the Duck house is controlled chaos. Waiters parading dishes, catching their breaks, takings nips from the bar after a long shift. Each of these characters carries a past and a distinct personality and clearly longstanding relationships with other employees. The combination of all these aspects makes the narrative lively.

Lillian Li has composed a novel blending the right amount of humor and charm with tradition. There were at times where the novel felt unbalanced and conversations too long, but the story and the characters provided enough entertainment to push through those parts. Overall, a good novel.

Thank you, NetGalley, Henry Holt and Company, and the author for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.

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