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.