Li, Lillian. “Number One Chinese Restaurant: A Novel”, Picador Paperback, 2019.
Multi-generational Lives and Loves
The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is a microcosm of society and not just 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 is a part of fast-paced restaurant life.
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.
We go beyond restaurant life and read 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.
We follow the owners and staff of The Beijing Duck House before and after a devastating fire. And as we do, we learn a great deal about Chinese culture (from familial obligation to amending names with an Ah- prefix, to the immigration process to America, to knowing what region someone is from by their accent and forming opinions of them based on that. (Although I suppose we do that in the US, too – that last one might be universal.)
Jimmy is the current owner of the Duck House with Johnny out of the country for the first part of the book. The two brothers are opposites in most ways, with Jimmy being the back-of-house hardliner and Johnny being a diplomat. We meet their strong-willed mother, Feng, and her cousin, “Uncle” Pang, who has mysterious connections and can get things done but isn’t exactly benevolent about it. The last member of the immediate family is Annie, Johnny’s daughter. Two main plotlines revolve around each other and come together in places. Nan and Ah-Jack have both been working at the Duck House for thirty years and have married other people but have always adored each other. As the restaurant enters crisis, so do their personal lives, and things get messy. We have themes that are universal across cultures, especially dealing with immigrant experiences.