The owner and employees of a venerable Chinese restaurant in the D.C. suburbs face drastic changes in their lives and routines.
As Li's debut opens, Jimmy Han is searching his restaurant for Ah-Jack, an elderly waiter who is late with the order of Uncle Pang—an important and dangerous man who is not actually Jimmy's uncle. "At the mouth of the hallway, a current of Duck House staff buffeted Jimmy along. The Chinese and Spanish he'd banned from the dining room filled this narrow space, echoing off the walls. Waiters blocked traffic to grab beer from the lower fridge...busboys huddled against the main waiter station, pouring leftovers into paper cartons with hasty precision....Behind the stainless-steel divider, flames whooshed up to embrace giant woks, each cook casually stir-frying as fire sprang, volcanic, from the deep, blackened burners." Evoking every detail of the setting, operation, cuisine, and culture of this restaurant with riveting verisimilitude, Li sets the stage for a complex family tragedy viewed from many angles. Jimmy has never been happy running the restaurant made famous by his late father; he's making moves to close it down and purchase a fancier venue in downtown Washington with a view of the Potomac. To raise the cash for this venture, he's hired a sexy real estate agent to sell the family mansion—though not if his mother, a bitter old woman who still lives there, has anything to say about it. Then Uncle Pang's behind-the-scenes machinations result in a dramatic catastrophe. Swept up in it are two teenage members of the restaurant's extended family, Jimmy's niece, Annie, and the recently-expelled-from-school busboy, Pat, son of the No. 1 waitress. Though nothing works out for any of the characters the way he or she wants it to, Li's sense of the human comedy and of the aspirations burning in each human heart puts a philosophical spin on the losses of her characters.
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.