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A Free Life (Vintage International) Paperback – January 27, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ha Jin, who emigrated from China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, had only been writing in English for 12 years when he won the National Book Award for Waiting in 1999. His latest novel sheds light on an émigré writer's woodshedding period. It follows the fortunes of Nan Wu, who drops out of a U.S. grad school after the repression of the democracy movement in China, hoping to find his voice as a poet while supporting his wife, Pingping, and son, Taotao. After several years of spartan living, Nan and Pingping save enough to buy a Chinese restaurant in suburban Atlanta, setting up double tensions: between Nan's literary hopes and his career, and between Nan and Pingping, who, at the novel's opening, are staying together for the sake of their young boy. While Pingping grows more independent, Nan—amid the dulling minutiae of running a restaurant and worries about mortgage payments, insurance and schooling—slowly snuffs the torch he carries for his first love. That Nan at one point reads Dr. Zhivago isn't coincidental: while Ha Jin's novel lacks Zhivago's epic grandeur, his biggest feat may be making the reader wonder whether the trivialities of American life are not, in some ways, as strange and barbaric as the upheavals of revolution. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Since emigrating from China to America in the 1980s to study literature, Ha Jin has become one of the most celebrated voices in American literature. A Free Life is his first "American" book, a "Chekhovian portrait of life and its soothing dailiness" (Vikram Johri) that explores the meaning of a truly free life. Critics often comment on the author’s lyricism and the fluidity of his prose (interestingly, one reviewer notes a connection between Jin and John Steinbeck, while another noted a deficiency in prose). Although rarely plot-driven, Jin’s novels instead unfold slowlyâ€"like life itself. A Free Life offers the greatest reward to those who read with patience and in quiet contemplation, absorbing the author’s passion for language.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage International
  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (January 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307278603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307278609
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #173,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

An immigrant family's life as it unfold story is a rare gem.
The story is old fashioned, the style lyrical, but despite the references to Nan's passion for poetry, very little passion overall.
K. L. Cotugno
I found this book to be very thought provoking and well written.
Linda Schmidt

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Doug on December 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's hard to imagine heading to a foreign country like Japan or Korea or even China to start a life with virtually no money and no real job training. Get a job, learn a language, get enough money to pay the bills, learn how a whole new culture really works. This story is well worth reading if only to reconfirm the benefits of living "A Free Life." Here are the things I found unique and interesting about the book:

1. There is really no dramatic story here. It reads like a journal describing every little thought and action including his little fights with his wife and son, everyday relationship with fellow workers, friends, poets. etc.

2. It's very description of the conservative and simple life of the regular Chinese people, those loyal to the old ways of Mao and those trying to flee from the country to start a new life in America and other places. They are willing to put in the long hours, are fiscally very very conservative, worried about every penny and investment. You understand that life is looked at from a different perspective, a perspective that you aren't entitled or worthy when you are born. You are here to work and earn enough money to pay the bills.

3. You can tell that the book is written by an intelligent, educated foreigner. It works well, flows well, is easy to understand and enjoy, but it is almost too straight forward, honest and lacks any poetry or beautiful writing. It seems like you are reading from a personal journal where comments about reactions to life's most mundane things are made. But this is part of what makes it worth reading. You comprehend the frustrations, fears, and real life of very good and devoted people. You can tell that everything that is said is from the heart and ruthfully honest.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Brad Teare VINE VOICE on January 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I found this book to be one of the most powerful books I have ever read. This book is so subtle and delicate you have to be persistent to discover its beauty. I didn't really get into it until page 75 or so (which is quite a bit of reading for a modern novel). I enjoyed the writing of the first 75 pages, Ha Jin is a wonderful writer, but it wasn't until Nan went to New York City that I really felt the story started to solidify.

This is a very artistic and highly nuanced story, and deserves to be read carefully. The story slowly unfolds and becomes more and more powerful until coming to an emotional crescendo in the journal and poems that complete the novel. Don't misunderstand me, this is a very understated tale, but for me all the more powerful for its restraint. I thought it impossible that this book would move me as much as Waiting. I was wrong. This is Ha Jin's most powerful work. I would give this book 10 stars if I could. It was that good.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on December 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A FREE LIFE is the immigrant story for our times. As the book opens, the reader is introduced to Pingping and Nan Wu, who have traveled cross country to pick up their six-year-old son, Taotao, whose exodus from China they have finally been able to effect. Taotao has not seen his father since he came to America to attend graduate school four years earlier. His mother left China two-and-a-half years later, leaving Taotao in the care of her parents. It is no surprise that after only several days in America, Taotao announces that he is ready to go back home to his grandparents, a fact to which it takes him a long time to become consoled.

A scholar in every aspect, Nan drops out of graduate school on the heels of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which led to meetings with fellow Chinese students where many forms of protest were discussed, including kidnapping the MIT student children of high-ranking Chinese officials. After a fairly standard protest in DC, Nan returns disenchanted, disturbed and determined to give up his graduate studies in the field of Political Science, a field chosen for him by his government.

The family now begins a long evolution. Previously, Nan had envisioned a future involving books, letters, poetry and the mind. Now, forgoing his student stipend, earning a living and establishing a life that provides both security and financial independence for his family becomes a necessity.

From serving as caretaker in a wealthy, divorcee doctor's home (with Pingping), to working as a security guard, to factory work, restaurant service in New York and other various jobs, Nan becomes a downright, sometimes downtrodden, blue-collar American immigrant worker. Underneath it all is the support and frugality of Pingping.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Adam Rust VINE VOICE on December 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I expected to enjoy A Free Life, but this exceeded my hopes. I worked my way through Waiting this summer. It was good, and I grew comfortable with Ha Jin's writing. That story took place in China and did not develop its characters, so much as it revealed something about life in rural China.

A Free Life goes beyond his previous work. The book covers almost twenty years in the life of a small family who emigrate from China. They live in Boston and New York for a while, but soon settle in suburban Atlanta. Their life experience shows something about the struggle of making it in a new country.

Nan, a sensitive aspiring poet who accepts a dutiful life of hard work in a humble restaurant, is haunted by his old country and by a past love. His wife, Ping Ping, works though the doubts held by her husband and is often the core of the family. They have a son.

This book deals with a lot of the same issues as a very different work, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both explore the tension between the freedom of the creative spirit and the lasting accomplishment of solid duty. In this case, of course, its the opposite journey for the subject. Still, Nan has plenty of artistic friends in his midst who weigh in on the other side of the equation.

They grow up and resolve this conflict, but not without some regret. This book is a very real account. Although it is characterized as fiction, my understanding is that it reflects the author's own life. This is a great book.
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