Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li’s darkly hilarious debut novel, exposes what goes on behind the scenes at the Beijing Duck House Chinese Restaurant in Rockville, Maryland. Its vibrant employees serve up not only a glorious duck dinner but also a fiery tale of sabotage, revenge and lasting love.
“The waiters aren’t real people on the floor. . . . More like cartoons,” Li writes. “Little boss” Jimmy Han wants to one-up his father, the original Duck House owner, with his own establishment. But he has to enlist the godfather of the family, Uncle Pang, and undermine his brother and mother to do it. Uncle Pang has his own plans for Duck House, involving Pat, the newest employee. Meanwhile, Pat’s mom, Nan, the longtime Duck House manager, and her best friend, Ah-Jack, play out their feelings for each other.
The novel is tense from start to finish, taking place mostly in close quarters, indoors and internally. Chapters end with cliffhangers as Li navigates each character’s thread of the tale. The pacing is as quick as an industrial kitchen over dinner service, jumping from one emergency to the next. There is a wild fierceness to Li’s writing, as she likens characters to an “agitated collie,” a “trapped rat” and “demon dogs,” both as comic relief and as a clue to the characters’ barely contained energies. This energy explodes, literally and figuratively, in a rousing climax that proves both curse and blessing. After all, fires may be destructive, but they also can provide an opportunity for new growth.
The flavor of Number One Chinese Restaurant is anything but typical, as Li combines broiling anger and slow-simmering love in delicious proportions.