Beneath the everyday comings and goings of the Beijing Duck House in Maryland, there is a web of complex family relationships and messy feelings. When Johnny Han decides to take drastic measures to open his own fusion restaurant and turn his back on his late father’s dreams, everything begins to unravel and we realise just how intertwined everyone has become.
This sounds like a premise I should have loved, and I had high hopes for it. However, instead of being the tightly packed, well-woven character exploration I was hoping for, it was concise and cold, leaving me feeling somewhat disappointed. There was scope with this plot for some positive meandering and description, but it ended up being too matter of fact for me, which didn’t suit the story at all.
On the other hand, Lillian Li’s construction of the unlikeable character is expert. Every single character she brings to life on the page is human and makes mistakes. Regret and misplaced anger ooze from the pages, making me wonder how the characters could even stand to look at one another.
We got a glimpse into the culture of Chinese restaurants and what it is like to be an immigrant in America. I would have liked more of this, including more insight into the attitudes of the characters’ relatives in China, as these were some of my favourite parts of the novel. We definitely see the contrast in cultures when Johnny sets up his fusion restaurant and regulars from the Beijing Duck House reject his new menu.
The exploration of the American Dream, and its disappointments is well done and the suggestion of organised crime just beneath the surface shows how reliant you can become on the wrong people – people who do not necessarily want the best for you.
The multi-generational aspect of the book was intriguing, with Pat and Annie severely clashing with the adults surrounding them and finding solace in each other. This became confusing and flat on the page though, because they appeared to morph into one another – neither had their own set of characteristics. It was almost as though Li wasn’t confident in writing teenagers, and it was a shame, because all of the adults in the book were written in a much better, more realistic way.
I do think it deserved its place on the longlist, especially considering some of the other entries I have been sorely confused by. However, it certainly isn’t the best entry either, and I think you would have to have an interest in the topics discussed in order to get anything from it. That being said, I would definitely read more from Lillian Li in the future, because she has masses of potential and I think with further development, she could produce something five star worthy.
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