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A Gesture Life: A Novel Hardcover


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 356 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (September 6, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573221465
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573221467
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #792,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Never judge a book by its cover--or, for that matter, by its name. Otherwise you might overlook A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee's fine if awkwardly entitled follow-up to Native Speaker. As he did in his debut, the author explores the dilemma of being an outsider--and the corrupt, heartbreaking bargains an outsider will make to adapt to his surroundings. The protagonist, Franklin Hata, has actually spent his whole life donning one variety or another of existential camouflage. First, as a native-born Korean, he bends over backwards to fit into Japanese culture, circa 1944. Then he attempts a similar bit of environmental adaptation in postwar America--more specifically, in the slumbering New York suburb of Bedley Run. But in neither case does he quite succeed, which gives the novel its peculiar, faltering sense of tragedy.

"There is something exemplary to the sensation of near perfect lightness," confesses this resident alien, "of being in a place and not being there, which seems of course a chronic condition of my life but then, too, its everyday unction, the trouble finding a remedy but not quite a cure, so that the problem naturally proliferates until it has become you through and through. Such is the cast of my belonging, molding to whatever is at hand."

A Gesture Life presents this chronic condition in two different time frames. In one, delivered via flashback, Hata is a medical officer in Japan's Imperial Army. Posted to a tiny installation in rural Burma, he's ordered to oversee a fresh detachment of Korean "comfort women"--i.e., victims of institutionalized gang rape. At first he maintains his professional distance, not to mention his erotic appetite: "It was the notion of what lay beneath the crumpled cotton of their poor clothes that shook me like an air-raid siren." But soon enough he's drawn into a relationship with one of the women, whose bloody and horrific denouement leaves a permanent mark on the "unblissed detachment" of his existence.

The present-tense, American half of the story revolves around Hata's life in Bedley Run, where he adopts, alienates, and finally forms a shaky rapport with his daughter, Sunny. We might expect this sort of material to pale in comparison with his wartime trauma. But oddly enough, Hata's suburban melancholia is much more compelling--and the gradual disclosure of his past, which is supposed to ratchet up the tension, seems too crude a mechanism for a writer of Lee's superlative talents. (His truest tutelary spirit, in fact, might be John Cheever, who gets an explicit nod at one point.) None of this is to dismiss A Gesture Life, whose dual narratives are written with a rare, unhurried elegance. And if Lee's splice job lacks the absolute adhesion we expect from a great work of art, he nonetheless pulls off a remarkable, moving feat: he puts us inside the skin of a man who, "if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen." --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

Franklin Hata, born to Korean parents, raised by an adoptive family in Japan and settled in America, is the narrator of Lee's quietly stunning second novel. Like his first, the Hemingway/PEN award-winning Native Speaker, it is a resonant story of an outsider striving to become part of an alien culture. Beloved in the small, wealthy suburban New York community where for more than 30 years he ran a surgical supply store, "Doc" Hata lives a stringently circumspect life designed to afford him privacy and respect. Never married, he adopts a young girl of mixed parentage from a Japanese orphanage. He raises Sunny with strict adherence to impeccable standards, and is bewildered when she spurns his gifts and rejects his code of values. He is tormented, moreover, by memories of a gradually revealed event in his past, when he was a paramedical officer serving in the Japanese army in Burma. Then known as Ziro Kurohata, he tries to mask his Korean origins by behaving with inculcated respect for authority. But when five young Korean women arrive to service the soldiers as "comfort girls," his emotions betray him. He falls in love with one of them, and in a tentative attempt to behave heroically, he precipitates tragedy. Lee reveals these crucial events gradually in flashback, meanwhile also slowly completing his portrait of Hata as a decorous model citizen. After the war Hata determines never again to give way to emotion, so he loses an opportunity to enjoy love with a local widow, to give succor to another woman he admires, whose son is dying, and to establish real relationshops with others in the town of Bedley Run. Moreover, Sunny rebels against his stern standards, dropping out of high school and leaving town with a drug dealer. "You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness," she tells him. "You burden with your generosity." Finally, Hata is able to admit that both his exemplary behavior and his emotional reserve have been an attempt to distance himself from the dishonor of his wartime experiences. Meanwhile, he has quietly betrayed others in spite of his vow never to do so again. This ironic realization finally takes a physical toll, but opens his heart to an act of redemption. In an elegantly controlled narrative, Lee makes Hata's tortuous dilemma agonizingly real. While the prose is measured and moves to the pace of Hata's introspection, there is a rising tide of suspense that builds to two breathtaking climaxesAone at the army camp and the other in the present. Lee subtly contrasts the nuances of cultural conditioning in Japanese society and in Hata's virtual reincarnation as an American citizen, all the while delivering a haunting message about the penalties one pays for such a metamorphosis. His psychologically astute depiction of Hata's inner life is reinforced by the presence in the plot of other characters who live valiantly despite troubled lives. This is a wise, humane, fully rounded story, deeply but unsentimentally moving, and permeated with insights about the nature of human relationships. If Lee's first novel was an impressive debut, this one marks the solid establishment of a stellar literary career. Author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Chang-Rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-Rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton university.

Customer Reviews

Chang-Rae Lee has a writing style that makes prose seem like poetry.
Beau Thurnauer
We understand this need very well as we continue down the path of his life, alternating between the present comforts and discomforts and the past nightmares.
John A Sollami
The plot towards the end is a little too complicated and meandering.
E. Bukowsky

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 65 people found the following review helpful By timothy mcinerney on December 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover
From its first lines -- in which Lee's Doc Hata falsely states without a touch of irony, "They know me here" -- until the end when he finally begins to know himself, A Gesture Life breaks new ground. It has been a long time since an author, Wallace Stegner comes too mind, has handled the flashback so masterfully. Here the reader won't find himself favoring one story over another, as is usually the case with books that employ the flashback. In his second novel Lee explores the atrocities of the Japanese military, particularly those inflicted on the "comfort women," who were forced to pleasure the officers and enlisted men, through the eyes of Doc Hata, a former Imperial Navy medic who becomes not a physician but a revered small-town medical supplier in upstate New York. But more than simply the horror, this novel explores how these atrocities along with unperformed acts of violence, make it impossible for him to feel joy and pain and love. What happens during World War II is not past, but lives on and has an impact on each one of Hata's post-war relationships. Chang-rae Lee explores so many themes -- among them adoption, friendship, isolation, community, rancor, forgiveness -- and yet succeeds in holding the reader's thrall on every page. Lee delivers so many surprises, not least of which is a hopeful yet realistic resolution. You'll carry the characters, especially its imperfect protagonist, with you for years
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Cityview on November 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover
During World War II, Korean women were forced to serve as "comfort women," satisfying the sexual needs of the Japanese soldiers to ensure high morale. This exploitation was one of the ugliest wartime acts a country has ever committed against women. Today, many of the surviving women are seeking reparations from the Japanese government. A tragic incident involving a comfort woman forever shapes the life of Franklin "Doc" Hata, the central character in Chang-Rae Lee's moving, gracefully written "A Gesture Life." Hata is a retired Japanese businessman who lives in a quaint, suburban New York village where he is revered as a community leader for his polite, respectful ways. But though his manner has brought respect, it has also brought problems. His cool remove scuttles a love affair with a passionate widow and causes his adopted daughter to rebel and disappear from his life. After Hata nearly burns down his house and is hospitalized, his thoughts drift back to his years in the Japanese army. In the jungles of Burma, Hata makes the mistake of falling in love with a comfort woman he calls "K," who also is the object of a superior officer's desire. Hata, who was born Korean but adopted by a Japanese family, takes a stand to protect K, which results in heart-wrenching viciousness that forever shapes the way he deals with others, particularly women. "A Gesture Life" is not filled with dramatic moments, but the slow, graceful style Lee uses to let Doc Hata tell his story is appropriate and oddly compelling. The book succeeds because it so completely tells the story of an elderly Japanese immigrant facing the last years of his life. It also provides an eye-opening glimpse at one of the cruelest chapters in Japanese history.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By "troytron" on March 8, 2001
Format: Paperback
Chang-rae Lee's 'A Gesture Life' pulls the reader's mind, emotions, and spirit into the snapshot-world of Doc Hata's town, Bedley Run--a typical American berg on the outskirts of NYC. Here, our senses are soothed by the images of stable, normal Americana, and the successful Japanese-American retiree who is comfortably part of that landscape. It's almost a vision of utter serenity at first, but Lee's transcendent prose makes sure that we recognize another truth: beneath all of this security, there is a drumbeat of primordial heartbreak, and a keening sense of loss. Slowly, expertly, without the reader even expecting it, Lee unfolds a tale of immense but elegant grief. He leads the reader through a veritable labyrinth of shocking regrets, brought on by experiences that hide so perfectly beneath the veneer of the main character's 'life of gesture.' The book is astonishing for its lyrical perfection, its poetic structure, and seamless continuity. It is truly a soul work to be savored and conveys a serious lesson about the tragedy of being human. Five shooting stars.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By "dev_books" on February 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Chang-rae Lee's second novel, A GESTURE LIFE, covers some of the same territory as his first --- namely, the difficulties encountered by an outsider in our melting pot of a country. Like the narrator of NATIVE SPEAKER, Lee's debut novel, Franklin Hata suffers from a nearly incapacitating sense of reserve. Respected and accepted in his town of Bedley Run, the recently retired Franklin opens this book with quiet reflections on his place in life. The language is careful and wisely restrained, almost wistful in the manner of Fitzgerald. "I think one person can hardly understand why another has conducted his life in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and not others, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure or equanimity or regret."
This early decorous pace is deceptive, however, and as we follow Franklin through his daily regimen, the tattered edges of his life gradually begin to show through. A late life romance fallen apart and an adopted Korean daughter named Sunny whose bitter rebellion has hurt and confused him; these elements of his American life are revealed more with a sense of fatalism than any anger or disbelief. His stoic, unemotional stance seems surreally distant, until the story of Franklin's service as a medic in World War II emerges in the second third of the novel.
One reason this novel is on so many top ten lists for 1999 is the subtlety with which Lee recounts Franklin's memories of the war. The horror of many war stories resides in the atrocities that the opposing sides inflict on each other, yet man's inhumanity to woman is the central theme of Franklin's experience.
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