The Observer described Chanu as "one of the novel's foremost miracles: twice her age, with a face like a frog, a tendency to quote Hume and the boundless doomed optimism of the self-improvement junkie, he is both exasperating and, to the reader at least, enormously loveable." Geraldine Bedell wrote in The Observer that the "most vivid image of the marriage is of her [Nazneen] cutting her husband's corns, a task she seems required to perform with dreadful regularity. [Her husband] is pompous and kindly, full of plans, none of which ever come to fruition, and then of resentment at Ignorant Types who don't promote him or understand his quotations from Shakespeare or his Open University race, ethnicity and class module."
The novel was well received by critics in the United Kingdom and the United States, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The novel provoked controversy within the Bangladeshi community in Britain. Some groups thought Ali had negatively portrayed people from the Sylhet region, as they constitute the majority of the Bangladeshi immigrants living in the Brick Lane community.