My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Published by Henry Holt, 2018
The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.
Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.
Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.
This is the first time while reading the longlist of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction that I am baffled by the inclusion of a book. While I have been struggling with many of the books, I could always see how the books would work for a different reader and see the purposeful way in which the books were structured and narrated. I did enjoy reading this book but I also found it distinctly average (my friend Rachel called it “aggressively mediocre” in her wonderful review, a phrase so perfect a description for this book that I am unsure why I should even bother writing a review).
Lillian Li follows a large cast of characters, all connected to the Duck House, a Chinese restaurant in the US that is as much the reason these people are connected as it is the centre of this novel. While I do think that books with a large cast can work exceedingly well, for me to appreciate them this large cast has to come with a particular kind of narrative voice. Here, Li attempted an intimate narration to imbue the action with an emotional heart, and I don’t think this ever came together. Scenes that should have been emotional did not work for me because I had not spent enough time with the characters to be properly invested. As such, they felt melodramatic and overwrought.
The book is at its strongest when concentrating on familial relationships, be it Jimmy and Johnny, two brothers filled with both love and contempt for each other, who loath those characteristics in each other that they wish they had themselves, or Johnny and his daughter Annie, who love each other but have never found a way to properly communicate. But for me, the most compelling relationship was between Nan (a long time manager at the Duck House) and her son Pat. This relationship tugged at my heartstrings in a way none of the other narrative strands came even close to. Pat in particular reminded me of my little brother when he was 17 and angry at the world. The interactions of lost and confused and vicious Pat and his mother, who just does not know how to deal with her struggling and difficult son, felt honest and true in a way that made me wish for a book more tightly focussed on these two.
I found the writing to be distinctly underwhelming safe for a few really wonderful sentences like this one: “It pained Nan to admit this, but he shouldn’t have bent under her hollow reassurances. She should’ve taught her son how to ask for more. The fact that he didn’t was what made him hers; they were genetic mirrors, with identical weak spots in their bones.” But for the most part the writing veered dramatically between matter-of-factness bordering on boring and overwritten melodrama (especially in the last 50 pages) in a way that I found disatisfying.
I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:
- The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
- Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
- Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
- Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
- Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
- Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
- Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
- Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)