Haven’t most of us been to that Chinese restaurant that is a bit rundown, over-decorated with lots of red and gold, over-decorated, over-crowded, with too many food choices, and too many tables? It’s always busy because the food is plentiful, inexpensive, and delicious. Well, that is the Beijing Duck House, the Number One Chinese Restaurant in Lillian Li’s debut novel.

Jimmy Han has worked most of his nearly forty years at the restaurant. It’s his father’s restaurant and he grew up there along with his younger brother Johnny. It’s a mixed legacy because Jimmy is embarrassed by the restaurant’s cultural touchstones such as the duck door handle, by the overflowing menu of stereotypical dishes. He longs for a chic restaurant with fusion foods, artfully arranged in an elegant decor. His restaurant dreams seem a dream of assimilation to me.

Number One Chinese Restaurant focuses on several relationships. There is the hot and heavy romance with Jimmy and Janine, his realtor. There are the complex familial relationships between Jimmy and his brother Johnny, the conflicts with their mother, and the resentment of their late father. Then there are the hostess Nan and the waiter Ah-Jack whose thirty-year friendship is shifting toward romance. Add Johnny’s daughter Annie and Nan’s son Pat whose romance is fractured by the mistakes of a night of drinking and temptation. Add a menacing fixer “Uncle” Pang and it gets terribly complex.

Sometimes I feel like I should like a book more than I do. Number One Chinese Restaurant is a good book, interesting and fast-paced. However, it would be a stronger book if we were allowed to figure some stuff out for ourselves. Since the narrative follows several people, we get a play-by-play of their thoughts and motives. I don’t think “show, don’t tell” has to be an absolute rule, but if you’re going to tell, don’t tell everything from everyone. It makes reading so passive.

Nonetheless, there’s some humor and lots of love and humanity in the story making it well worth reading.

I received a copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant from the publisher through NetGalley

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