Women’s Prize No. 10/16
Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant was the first title I picked up from the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist titles I haven’t yet read, for the arbitrary reason of it being the first one to arrive in my possession.
In the novel, Duck House owner Jimmy Han wants to break free of his father’s shadow and build a legacy of his own. In the eleventh hour of his shady plan to swap his father’s old Chinese restaurant for Jimmy’s own brand new Beijing Glory, he tries to back out of the scheme, to ill affect. Gradually he will learn that his actions have affected every person connected to the old Duck House, and that these friends and family are a more important part of his life than he ever realized.
The familiar saying “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” seems to be a fair sum of the concept behind Number One Chinese Restaurant. The narration follows several characters who’ve played a role in making the Duck House what it is, including staff and other members of the Han family, as well as an influential backer of dubious intent. Each is driven by his or her own dreams and desires, seemingly oblivious to the fact that years of acquaintance and working toward a common purpose have forged an unbreakable bond between them all.
“They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.”
For me, this book started promisingly; I found each of the characters intriguing and was invested in learning the eventual fate of the Duck House as well as unearthing the secrets behind its precarious state of existence. I loved the restaurant’s dynamic, with its mix of languages and its internal power structure. I wasn’t hooked but I was having a good time with no complaints. This lasted for about the first third of the novel.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Let me preface my issues with the book from this point by noting that there’s not necessarily anything wrong with Number One Chinese Restaurant; it simply alienated me in every conceivable way, thus ruining my experience with it. I found that I cared less about each of the main characters as I learned more about them. Jimmy, an unlikeable man from the beginning, began to grate on me to the point where I dreaded reading his sections at all. I lost interest in both the Duck House and the subsequent Beijing Glory, and with them went any last investment in finding out how Jimmy’s colossal mess would end or wanting it turn out any particular way. The elements that intrigued me most- the origins of the Duck House, as well as Jimmy’s parents and their relationship with the manipulative mafia man Uncle Pang- are left largely mysterious and unexplored. Even the real estate agent on the outskirts of the plot seems to have a more interesting trajectory than most of the characters that the narration does follow, though I thought all of them could have been described much more briefly to perhaps greater effect.
At the very end of the novel, there are a few lines that made me think Li was aiming for a story about immigrant experience, about the difficulty of coming to a new country and succeeding in the restaurant business as a means of survival, and the equal difficulty of later escaping it. I think I would have liked that story. But at no point in Number One Chinese Restaurant did I ever feel that this was a theme the novel was working toward. Jimmy certainly has a complicated relationship with the Duck House, which he both loves and despises for myriad reasons, but his attempt to break free of it and begin his own restaurant from scratch felt more related to his own ambition and familial relationships than any sort of consequence of his immigration. Furthermore, he was just such an asshole that I might have been happier to see his failure than success by the end of the novel.
The writing style struck me as competent and readable, which helped me through even after the novel had lost all sense of enjoyability. I did find occasional attempts at meaningful commentary:
“In China, they would have seemed a strange couple, with Ah-Jack clearly decades older than she was and both of them dressed in stained formal-wear. But in this waiting room, they belonged together if only because they were both Chinese.”
but each such statement seemed only to scratch the surface of its potential (in this case, the cultural ignorance of many Americans and the importance placed on appearances), and the narration would move on before I felt that I had gained any fresh perspective. In the passage above, the narration is more concerned with the development of this pair’s friendship/romance than in the ways they are perceived by the outside world. And I think ultimately that is my main criticism of the novel- the restaurant is such an insular environment that its themes and morals are nearly impossible to transfer to any situations outside of this one fiction; when even that fiction devolved for me, I felt like there was nothing left to gain from the novel.
But I will readily admit that Number One Chinese Restaurant‘s placement on the Women’s Prize longlist- from which I’ve already read and enjoyed nine titles- may have skewed my expectations. Some of the titles I’ve previously loved from the longlist are certainly tough acts to follow, and this is the first book I’ve picked up knowingly from that list. It’s entirely possible that these circumstances have affected my reading experience, and I’m hoping that recognizing it now will prevent future disappointments as I continue through the longlist.
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve rated anything 2 stars, and I’m still feeling a bit uncertain about it. This has probably been the most challenging book I’ve had to review so far this year. I didn’t hate it- I just don’t have anything pleasant to say about it at this point. As always, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something or that key meaning has gone over my head. I’ll be very interested to see what other longlist readers will think of this one, though personally I hope to see other titles with more to offer advancing to the shortlist.
In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:
The Literary Elephant