Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

July 5, 2018
Number One Chnese Restaurant, Lillian Li, InToriLex, Book Review
Published By: Henry Holt and Co. on June 19, 2018
Format Read: ARC Edition (288 pages)
Genre: Literary Fiction/ Adult/ Own Voices
Series: Stand Alone
Source: Publisher Request
Number One Chinese Restaurant
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.


Content Warning: Cancer, Alcoholism, Mental Illness, Organized Crime


A refreshing view into the lives of people through their association with The Beijing Duck House and the people who run it. The book switches between three main point of views, Jimmy Han the owner of The Beijing Duck House, Nan the manager of the restaurant and Ah-Jack an aging waiter who is struggling to support his sick wife. The author does a great job of creating realistic characters that aren't clearly good or bad. Jimmy is a selfish person who still cares deeply about the people around him, Nan is a overly devoted woman who puts herself last, and Ah- Jack is a self indulgent man who is coddled by his friendship with Nan. They don't all get along seamlessly but created a support system for each other.
"They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together."
This book is about people desperately trying to do what's best for themselves. All of the characters make questionable choices, throughout the book they have to face consequences for their misguided choices. This is a great character study that illustrates how hard it can be to exist in our realities while dreaming for something better. The Han family is strained by the deceased father's ways of keeping the restaurant going and resentments that have stewed against each other for decades. Pat, Nan's son and Annie, Jimmy's niece, are two rebellious teenagers who are in the sweet spot of adolescence where their own morality and limits seem fictional. They were as wise as most teenagers are. 
"What did these people want when they said they wanted nothing but her happiness? Nobody was without motive or desire."
The characters and setting of this book kept me reading although I wanted the plot to move along faster. I was engaged the whole time, but thought the pacing and flow of the book could have been better. The ending left me with questions I wished were resolved, but did wrap up the main conflict. Overall this was a strong debut with diverse characters set in a place I wanted to learn more about.

Recommended for readers who:
- enjoy multi generational stories
- want a character driven novel with flawed characters
- can tolerate an ending that doesn't neatly close things up

I received an advanced reader's copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Lillian Li was born in Ann Arbor, MI, but grew up in Potomac, MD. She is a graduate from the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program, where she received her MFA in fiction. Her work has appeared in Granta, Guernica, Glimmer Train, and Jezebel. She writes for the Michigan Quarterly Review. Currently, she lives in Ann Arbor, teaching at the University of Michigan, and slinging books at Literati Bookstore.


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