Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
Published by Pushkin Press, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This is where I confess that I was dreading picking up this book. The blurb did little for me, and the lukewarm average rating on Goodreads didn’t exactly fill me with confidence either. With my aim of reading the entire Women’s Prize longlist, however, I was determined to push on regardless. Now, how much my enjoyment was down to it being a genuinely good read, and how much was down to my very low expectations being easily surpassed, I’ll never be sure. But I am both pleased and relieved to say I ended up really liking this book.
The plot centres around several generations of a Chinese immigrant family who run a restaurant together in the US. With one brother having ambitions beyond the family name, and the others each harbouring secrets or desires of their own, conflict and drama begin to unfold. And though I won’t go into specifics, I was surprised by the amount of stuff that actually happens in this book; from organised crime and underhand deals, to love affairs and unlikely friendships.
Li doesn’t strive to make her characters particularly likable, but for that they feel all the more believable. Perhaps not on this scale, admittedly, but what family doesn’t have its own share of secrets, betrayals, rivalries, and resentment to contend with when pressure mounts and the cracks begin to show? I love the way she explores the theme of duty versus desire, with each of the characters wrestling in their own way with honouring the commitments they feel they should uphold, and chasing after what they really want from life. The inescapable ties of familial loyalty, particularly in a culture that puts so much emphasis on lineage, is captured very effectively. So too is the struggle to find your own sense of individuality within the hierarchy of a family or business (or both, as the case may be). Notions of grief and guilt are also touched upon, as is the complexity of language, communication, and cultural identity within an Asian-American family.
The restaurant itself serves as the nucleus of the family, repeatedly drawing them all back together no matter their attempts to leave; like a physical representation of their bond. A sense of longing and quiet loneliness permeates the book, and I found this effective, too. It allows for moments of both black humour and melancholy to help balance out the melodrama that unfolds.
All that said, the novel is far from perfect. The prose, whilst fine at propelling the story forward, neither grabbed nor moved me at any time. There are some sections that feel bloated, and I think the book would have been stronger had it been streamlined in some way; allowing for a more incisive examination of each character’s emotional turmoil.
There is also a fleeting inclusion of the tired disfigurement-as-a-sign-of-evil trope that just doesn’t belong in contemporary fiction. Physical difference (in this instance, a missing finger) is an outdated and lazy way to indicate to the reader that a character is in some way bad, but writers should know by now to show us this through the character’s actions and words, and not to tell us by falling back on harmful stereotypes. In fairness, it’s mentioned only twice (I think), and both times very briefly, so at least it isn’t hammed up. It’s so inconsequential to the plot or the development of the character, however, that it’s clearly only there as an indicator of the man’s ugly personality. Frankly, an editor should have been on it like a hawk.
This, for me, was a good book. But with so much potential thrown up by the various plot points, characters, and themes that were at play, it could have been a great one. It simply needed to be brought together with a little more finesse. Still, given how much I expected to dislike it, I’m counting this one as a resounding success!
If you’d like to give Number One Chinese Restaurant a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!