Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Number One Chinese Restaurant is the story of the decades-long loyalties and tensions in the restaurant from the Hans, inherited from father to son, a place where once politicians went to, actors, even presidents – but somehow has not met real prestige yet. Jimmy, the manager, has big dreams for a restaurant of his own. His older brother Johnny worked so hard for so many years on the restaurant that he became distant from his own daughter. Nan has worked there for decades together with Ah-Jack and yearns to be with him. With all of the underlying drama waiting to boil, no one notices when Pat and Annie get themselves into trouble.
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.
It was a surprise to lots of us, including me, when Number One Chinese Restaurant made it to the longlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, especially with such a low rating in Goodreads. I decided to listen to the audiobook narrated by Nancy Wu instead of reading the physical book, and I think it works very well that way!
The difficult, complex relationships and years of frustrations and repressed desires are the core of this book, and what makes it shine. All the characters had their own struggles, none of them in black-and-white personalities and stories. Lillian Li’s book is a story of different lives come together and held together by a restaurant and how easily things can break apart. How the world can find ways to break your heart and the stories we tell ourselves to make us feel better.
While it lacked a bit poignancy in the writing style for my taste, I have no idea why people gave this such a lackluster rating – it’s a great story of immigration and food and family. The cover gave me the impression that this book would be light-hearted and funny, but it’s deeper and hungrier than that. I also wish the plot had felt a little more urgent, and the stakes had been higher and made me squirm a bit. Otherwise, it reminded me a bit of Celeste Ng, in terms that it tells the story of immigration and family and gives people who hardly ever get a voice, a literary voice that has people listening. Now, every time I go to a restaurant run by an immigrant family, I will think of this book.
I actually do recommend this book and, while I think the other books I’ve read so far of the Longlist have a brilliance that this book doesn’t quite have, it was still an enjoyable read that touched my heart and left me feeling hopeful and a little broken, too. Frankly, I like it more than other books that have made it to the shortlist in the past. A little gem for someone looking for a book that will break your heart a little but not devastate you.