book review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li



Henry Holt, 2018


Everything about Number One Chinese Restaurant is just aggressively mediocre. I say ‘aggressively’ because you’re confronted with this mediocrity on practically every page; the prose is simultaneously lifeless and overwritten, the characters are poorly drawn caricatures, the plot meanders, and this book just never manages to hit any of the emotional beats that it strives for. It’s basically an emotionally hollow melodrama.

Not to fully absolve Lillian Li of all of these issues, but I do believe that a lot of this could have been solved with tighter editing. Because what works about this book are its bare bones: a dysfunctional Chinese-American family struggles to run a Chinese restaurant, with inter-generational tension providing the main conflict: how does one balance a family legacy with their own plans for the future? It’s a great concept, and I wanted to root for this book; I wanted to root for the Han family, but it all just fails in execution.

Certain plot threads are examined and re-examined through different perspectives ad nauseum; others are abandoned after a brief mention. This book is over-saturated with details, but it doesn’t pause to imbue key moments with any kind of emotional weight. When Jimmy Han’s family’s restaurant is set on fire, we learn the particulars of the fire-setting from about four different perspectives, but what about the aftermath? Jimmy, relying on insurance money to come through, quickly starts a new restaurant and hires staff and creates a new menu and this all happens off the page, we get from point A to point B so easily that it’s a wonder we should care at all, with characters overcoming obstacles this easily.

This could have been good but it just wasn’t. I’d gladly read more from Lillian Li in the future, as this was a debut and it wasn’t so abysmal that I’ll completely write off her potential, but as a Women’s Prize read it sadly felt like a waste of time.

You can pick up a copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant here on Book Depository.

19 thoughts on “book review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

  1. Oh god, I am not looking forward to this. I will definitely take a break from the mediocre books on the list and read some of the ones I am excited about because at the moment it is starting to feel a bit like a chore.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I still have quite a few that I will surely love, so I am still hopeful for the rest of the longlist. I think this one is the last one I might potentially hate. Although I am not getting on well with Lost Children Archive. I need to give it a few hours of concentrated reading soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s definitely not a contender next to the others. So sorry you didn’t enjoy this much. The story resonated with me so much, I guess I was emotionally connected to it? In any case, I hope you like the others better!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s totally fair, and I’m glad you enjoyed it a lot more than I did! It’s funny how with some books some readers are really emotionally affected and others are left cold, it’s hard to explain that kind of thing sometimes.


  3. Aggressively mediocre, I love that description! I felt largely the same about this one. It was a shame because while the first half didn’t wow me I thought there was potential, but then the second half just kept getting worse.
    I do like the cover though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I agree, I didn’t start it with terribly high hopes but I did think it had a lot of potential to improve, and instead it just fell flat. It’s such a shame! I do really love the premise, and I love books about dysfunctional family dynamics. And yes, the cover is so good!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I completely agree!! I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this one when it first came out, and I remember loving the concept, but feeling “blah” towards the rest of it. Definitely not very memorable for me several months later, and I was completely taken aback with its appearance on the WP longlist!!! Mediocre for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When it first came out I was really excited about it, and then I started seeing some negative reviews and I was so surprised when it ended up on this list! I thought it might be a pleasant surprise since my expectations were low but it was just so very middling. I really don’t understand what the judges see in this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Because what works about this book are its bare bones” – I agree with this so much. The saddest part about they junky writing was that the story had so much potential. My heart was in it and it only would have taken a little finesse to be a great book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes!! If I were an editor and this were presented to me as a first draft, I’d be excited because there is SO MUCH to work with. But as a finished book?? Not quite as impressive…


  6. Excellent review! The premise’d intrigued me in spite of all the bad reviews, but I’ll know to pass now. The book’s problems (messy plot, overwritten prose, caricatures, etc.) seem common to a lot of debuts, but it’s surprising this was longlisted in spite of its many issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I felt similarly – I thought the premise sounded excellent but I started to get more and more apprehensive with all the negative reviews, but I wanted to give it a try anyway (plus I’m trying to read the whole list). This is the first book off the longlist where I’ve genuinely not understood its inclusion. I mean, not to be cynical, but did they just want to include an East Asian author…? Because there are so many better books they could have chosen!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s