Number One Chinese Restaurant is Lillian Li’s first attempt at a novel.
The story follows the family who own the Duck House, the best Chinese restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, as well as some of the staff who have worked there for years.
The matriarch father has died and sons Jimmy and Johnny have taken ownership of the restaurant along with their mother who since her husband’s death has lost her desire for life.
Jimmy and Johnny each have troubled lives which include addictions and unhappy marriages. Their mother belittles both of them as much as she can and treats them both as employees of the restaurant rather than her children. Johnny has a teenage daughter Annie, whom he was once close to but finds little time for now that he is in charge of the Duck House. Annie misses her father and has sunk into a deep depression.
Jimmy decides to open his own restaurant which he believes will rival his father’s and will perhaps finally make his mother respect him. But he needs the capital for his plan to succeed.
Then we have the staff members Nan and Ah-Jack who have worked at the Duck House for decades and have been best friends from the moment they laid eyes on each other. Nan has a teenage son, Pat who has been expelled from school for setting a fire. Ah-Jack has a wife, Michelle, who is recovering from cancer and never leaves the house.
Although employer and employees, these people are all family and what affects one affects them all. The sense of desperation and sadness in their lives is palpable.
Although a good read, I felt a bit frustrated at the ending, feeling not every character had the closure I expected (or perhaps I needed). I don’t think I would recommend this book, but perhaps it just wasn’t my cup of tea.