Lillian Li understands the appeal of a busy restaurant — the overheated kitchen inflaming tension, the cramped dining room cornering patrons into squabbles. From the first scene, a performance of “Happy Birthday” by waiters who can’t quite “find the tune,” Li’s crackling debut novel explores the disorienting routine of the Beijing Duck House. Hot oil splashes. Orders are botched. Waiters disappear. And familiar bonds form: secret lovers, rivaling siblings, lifelong friends.
Number One Chinese Restaurant centers on the Duck House’s owner, Jimmy, the son of proud immigrants who hopes to ditch the business he inherited. His ambitions throw those in his orbit into chaos — and put his family legacy on the line. Li goes right into the action but is tentative about how to navigate it; the pacing starts out as frantic as the restaurant, struggling to establish a consistent tone around chunks of exposition. But stick with it: Li’s talent for human tragicomedy grows more evident by the page. Her characters — Nan, the venerable restaurant manager on the brink of disaster, especially — come alive, and her erratic plotting consolidates, leading to a cogent finale. By the climax, Li generously realizes the dreams, the regrets, and the resilience of a family holding on to its American dream, hoping it doesn’t slip away. B