So expertly does first-time novelist Lillian Li conjure the Beijing Duck House...that readers of Number One Chinese Restaurant can almost taste its signature dish and feel the heat of its woks ... Number One Chinese Restaurant, by turns darkly funny and heartbreaking, is sometimes over-plotted, but Ms. Li brings her characters to vivid life.
...[a] darkly hilarious debut novel ... The novel is tense from start to finish, taking place mostly in close quarters, indoors and internally ... 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 ... The flavor of Number One Chinese Restaurant is anything but typical, as Li combines broiling anger and slow-simmering love in delicious proportions.
Though lightened with comedic moments, the quiet tragedy of familial resentment lies at the heart of the story. Li focuses steadily on the troubled relationship between immigrant parents and their American-born offspring ... A smart combination of Chinese American life, service industry travails and the ups and downs of belonging to a family, Number One Chinese Restaurant will make great discussion fare for book clubs.
Li goes right into the action but is tentative about how to navigate it; the pacing starts out as frantic as the restaurant, struggling to establish a consistent tone around chunks of exposition. But stick with it: Li’s talent for human tragicomedy grows more evident by the page. Her characters — Nan, the venerable restaurant manager on the brink of disaster, especially — come alive, and her erratic plotting consolidates, leading to a cogent finale. By the climax, Li generously realizes the dreams, the regrets, and the resilience of a family holding on to its American dream, hoping it doesn’t slip away.
Although Li’s prose can be uninspired ('the trouble with life was that life needed trouble'), more often it engrosses, especially when she allows the external world into the virtually airtight space of the restaurant ... For the most part, though, Li’s fictional America is suggestively insubstantial, her characters seemingly unable to step outside 'the shadow of the Duck House,' itself a metaphor for their 'Chineseness' in the United States — whether perceived or self-imposed ... [a] novel of our time.
With its deliciously depicted restaurant setting and knowing perspective on Chinese-American culture, this novel is two-thirds cultural comedy. The other third is something deeper and sadder. A writer to watch.