A Gesture Life: A Novel

( 13 )

Overview

The second novel from the critically acclaimed New York Times–bestselling author Chang-rae Lee.

His remarkable debut novel was called "rapturous" (The New York Times Book Review), "revelatory" (Vogue), and "wholly innovative" (Kirkus Reviews). It was the recipient of six major awards, including the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. Now Chang-rae Lee has written a powerful and beautifully crafted second novel that leaves no doubt ...

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A Gesture Life: A Novel

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Overview

The second novel from the critically acclaimed New York Times–bestselling author Chang-rae Lee.

His remarkable debut novel was called "rapturous" (The New York Times Book Review), "revelatory" (Vogue), and "wholly innovative" (Kirkus Reviews). It was the recipient of six major awards, including the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. Now Chang-rae Lee has written a powerful and beautifully crafted second novel that leaves no doubt about the extraordinary depth and range of his talent.

A Gesture Life is the story of a proper man, an upstanding citizen who has come to epitomize the decorous values of his New York suburban town. Courteous, honest, hardworking, and impenetrable, Franklin Hata, a Japanese man of Korean birth, is careful never to overstep his boundaries and to make his neighbors comfortable in his presence. Yet as his story unfolds, precipitated by the small events surrounding him, we see his life begin to unravel. Gradually we learn the mystery that has shaped the core of his being: his terrible, forbidden love for a young Korean Comfort Woman when he served as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II.

In A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee leads us with dazzling control through a taut, suspenseful story about love, family, and community—and the secrets we harbor. As in Native Speaker, he writes of the ways outsiders conform in order to survive and the price they pay for doing so. It is a haunting, breathtaking display of talent by an acclaimed young author.
 

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
"A beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book."—The New York Times Book Review

"A Gesture Life is the touching, multilayered rumination of an uneasy psyche. It is also a tragic, horrifying page-turner, whose evocation of wartime victims is unforgettable...A deeply involving tale, no less so because we realize, almost from the first chapter, that we can't trust Hata's version of events. [Lee] enlists the reader's full energies to interpret this enigmatic speaker, who saddens, baffles and unfuriates us all at once."—Chicago Tribune

"Once again, this gifted young author has given us a beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Lee elegantly creates suspense out of the seemingly static story of a man trying hard not to feel. He has written a wise and humane novel that both amplifies the themes of identity and exile he addressed in Native Speaker, and creates a wonderfully resonant portrait of a man caught between two cultures and two lives."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

From the Publisher

"A beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book."—The New York Times Book Review

"A Gesture Life is the touching, multilayered rumination of an uneasy psyche. It is also a tragic, horrifying page-turner, whose evocation of wartime victims is unforgettable...A deeply involving tale, no less so because we realize, almost from the first chapter, that we can't trust Hata's version of events. [Lee] enlists the reader's full energies to interpret this enigmatic speaker, who saddens, baffles and unfuriates us all at once."—Chicago Tribune

"Once again, this gifted young author has given us a beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Lee elegantly creates suspense out of the seemingly static story of a man trying hard not to feel. He has written a wise and humane novel that both amplifies the themes of identity and exile he addressed in Native Speaker, and creates a wonderfully resonant portrait of a man caught between two cultures and two lives."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573228282
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 258,507
  • Lexile: 1270L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.29 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Chang-rae  Lee

Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton University.
 
 

Biography

Chang-rae Lee landed on the literary scene with Native Speaker, a detective story about much more than just another crime. Detective Henry Park grows too attached to those he investigates as he discovers the connection between broad social questions and his personal failings. Critics responded, and Lee's debut received a string of recognition, including a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Biography/Critical Appreciation Everyone agrees that Chang-rae Lee is a writer to watch. His debut novel, Native Speaker, (1995) won the American Book Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Plus, two literary cornerstones, The New Yorker and Granta, named him one of the twenty best American writers under forty.

Lee and his family emigrated from Seoul, South Korea to the United States in 1968. His family settled in Westchester, New York, and Lee eventually attended Yale and the University of Oregon, where he earned his M.F.A.

Native Speaker is a story about a Korean-American detective, Henry Park, whose investigative eye is eventually turned upon himself. The novel takes a challenging look at Park's effort reconcile his two cultures in an even larger culturally diverse setting, New York City. The language is simple, yet the reader is allowed a deep and intriguing look inside the head of the main character, the politics that affect him, and his struggles with love and cultures. The New York Times called Lee's debut "highly original," and the Literary Review raved, "... Native Speaker seems like a new kind of novel, the plainsong of unassimilated man, and in the murmur of his nascent voice is the soft clash of borders."

In 1999, Lee's second novel, A Gesture Life continued the themes of identity and assimilation. Lee wrote the novel over the course of four years, although it was originally about the experience of a Korean "comfort woman," forced to sexually service invading Japanese soldiers. Lee traveled to Korea and interviewed surviving comfort women, but two years into the novel, one of the characters, previously considered a minor one, captured Lee's imagination and wouldn't let go. Remarkably, Lee abandoned everything he had written except for one character -- Doc Hata.

Franklin "Doc" Hata is a reserved, older physician, Korean by birth, raised in Japan, and now living in New York City. Only after much needling by his daughter, Doc Hata begins to reveal his painful secrets: his time as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II, his love for one of the Korean comfort women, and the guilt that has kept him silent for most of his life. It's an unforgettable story, and The New York Times called the book "... a work of astonishing psychological acuity and compassion."

With the 2004 release of Lee's Aloft, once again, readers are treated to a portrait of a man in the throes of a reconciliation. Readers who expect Lee's novels to deal exclusively with Asian Americans will be pleasantly surprised to see the author flex his writing skills with the creation of Jerry Battle, the semi-retired head of a (mostly) white Long Island family. On the ground, Battle is inundated with family bickering, his upcoming 60th birthday, and the mystery surrounding his wife's death. Aloft in his small private plane, Battle escapes all of this, although only temporarily. His is the story of how to cope with responsibility -- to the past, and to the unknown.

Lee a writer and a teacher, as well as the director of the M.F.A. Program at Hunter College of City University in New York City. Those fortunate enough to be his students get to learn from the man who knows the stuff of human nature -- that the aftereffect of any act is the core of every great story, and that even the most conventional characters can bear the weight of unconventional story lines.

Good To Know

"If I weren't a writer," Lee reveals in our interview, "I'd probably be working in the food and/or wine business, perhaps running a wine or coffee bar -- or even an Asian noodle soup shop."
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    1. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 29, 1965
    2. Place of Birth:
      Seoul, Korea
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2006

    A great book for some....

    With A Gesture Life, Chang Rae Lee once again proves his literary greatness. Lee is a great story teller and has an innate ability to create fascinating characters. Lee never overtly portrays his characters to his American readers. He lets his readers grasp his characters through a series of mysterious, complex events that are carefully created to unveil ethnic and cultural disparities in our society. His main character, Franklin Hata, a Korean man living as a Japanese man, appears as a typical Japanese man whom his American neighbors expect him to be. Yet, later we learn that Hata has many secretes that he has been more than eager to divulge. Hata¿s final reconciliation with his adopted daughter and her son brings a happy ending that Hata has desperately sought all his life. For this book, Lee researched extensively and he went to South Korea to interview Korean elderly women who were forced to go the battlefields as sex slaves by the Japanese troops during World War II. Those elderly women were known as Comfort Women who are too ashamed to reveal their past, until recently. Before writing this book, Lee often said that he wanted to share those women¿s pain through his books. A Gesture Life is the result of Lee¿s long waited aspiration. As a Korean American, Lee shows his pride of his Korean heritage through his writing, and he sometimes quietly shares his love of his hard working Korean American parents for the sacrifices they had made. Lee should be highly commended for his genuine trying to share his Korean ethnicity and culture. Yet, perhaps because of his inability to thoroughly understand Korean language, there are many cases where Lee inadvertently fails. Despite Lee¿s sincere effort, he fails to share the agonies and pain of those Korean elderly women by the hands of the brutal Japanese troops. The graphic images of those Comfort Women that he pains in A Gesture Life do not disclose those women¿s continuous suffering. Korea¿s continuous animosity and Japan¿s reluctance to atone its past atrocities to amend its ties with Asian nations that suffered during Japan¿s colonial rules were never fully explained. The Korean immigrants¿ selfless love for their children is not well explained in A Native Speaker even though he spends a great length discussing about it. Perhaps, it is not Lee¿s job. In 1996, I read his first book, A Native Speaker, as a young graduate student, eager and curious to read a first major Korean American novel. It also helped that my professor strongly recommended. Like A Gesture Life, the book was superbly written but like A Gesture Life, Lee failed to deliver the same literary satisfaction to Korean American readers, which he was able to cogently do to his American readers. His Korean American characters are too lightly portrayed for cursory American readers to better understand. Many times, his Korean American characters are slightly too exaggerated and often those characters are simply too Korean to be realistic Korean Americans or Korean. Koreanness in his novels is often unnecessary and unrealistic. It is possible that despite his commercial and critical successes in the US, Chang Rae Lee is deemed a pariah in South Korea¿s literary circle. His books were politely well received by South Korean media but South Korean readers were either indifferent or uninterested. Still, Chang Rae Lee is one of the best writers of our generation and is a superb storyteller. We should expect see Chang Rae Lee¿s greater achievements in the future. As a fellow Korean American, I am deeply indebted to Lee for writing about Korea and its beautiful culture.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2004

    Beautifully Nuanced and Marvelously Understated

    I just read Chang-rae Lee¿s third novel, ALOFT, and I didn¿t really like it, but I especially liked this, his second novel, A GESTURE LIFE. A GESTURE LIFE is a quiet book, filled with deep emotion that is beautifully written and marvelously understated. The protagonist of A GESTURE LIFE is Franklin ¿Doc¿ Hata, a man of Korean parentage who was adopted by a wealthy Japanese couple and grew up in Japan. Hata, himself, though never married, adopted a racially mixed daughter, Sunny, whom he pushes to excel just as his own adoptive parents pushed him. Sunny, however, proves to be a bit more rebellious than was Hata. When A GESTURE LIFE opens, Franklin Hata, now retired, is living in Bedley Run, New York, a pillar of respectability and decorum. He takes very good care of his lovely home, he¿s polite to his neighbors and he was almost venerated by the customers who came into his shop. Hata, however, may have missed out on much of life simply because an incident in his youth caused him to ¿play it safe¿ and refuse to take chances. Better to live a peaceful, quiet life, albeit a lonely one, reasons Hata, than expose oneself to the pain of heartbreak. One of the things I liked most about A GESTURE LIFE is the fact that Lee constantly cuts back and forth between Hata¿s life ¿now¿ in Bedley Run and his youth in Japan. In this way, we learn who Franklin Hata really is and why he makes the choices he does, for even in Japan, Hata felt like an interloper and this feeling of ¿not belonging¿ caused him to excel at everything he did, from academic work to military training. The feeling of ¿not belonging¿ is also something that Hata knows intimately, for he has felt it all his life. While in the military, the one event that, more than any other, set the stage for the rest of Hata¿s life occurred: he met and fell in love with a Korean woman called K, a woman sent by the Japanese army to ¿comfort¿ its soldiers. Hata denied his feelings for K during the war, and so, partly in an effort to atone and partly to suppress the pain of heartbreak, Hata denies the full flowering of his own emotional life. He suppresses his urges. He sublimates his desires. Lee¿s prose in A GESTURE LIFE is elegant and quiet and contains none of the heavy-handed symbolism found in his third novel, ALOFT. His transitions from present to past and back again are almost seamless and the pace of the book is perfect (it¿s slow, but slow is perfect for A GESTURE LIFE). A few of the characters are rather one-dimensional, but Hata and Sunny are rich and complex. Although I preferred the narrative that took place during the past, both are masterfully written and Lee¿s eye for choosing just the right detail to bring his story to life is perfect. A GESTURE LIFE is an elegant and beautiful novel and, one that is ultimately very sad. It reminds me a more than a little of Kazuo Ishiguro¿s THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, although I don¿t think A GESTURE LIFE, as good as it is, is quite the masterpiece THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is. Still, Franklin Hata, is a man, who, like Stevens, tugs at your heart until you find it impossible to forget him. I would definitely recommend A GESTURE LIFE to anyone who loves quiet character studies and doesn¿t mind a slower paced book. It is also important book for anyone interested in the immigrant experience in America or in understanding the feelings of displaced persons. Readers of literary fiction should love A GESTURE LIFE, but aficionados of genre fiction probably won¿t find it to their liking. Although A GESTURE LIFE isn¿t perfect, it comes so close, and the character of Franklin Hata is so beautifully drawn I thought it would be a travesty to give the book anything less than five stars.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2000

    The same relation with every ordinary asian life in the US

    This book was amazingly true to my standards. It was exactly how i felt it was going to be ever since i heard about the book and read the short summary. My life, as a korean person, is very similar to this one, except that i am only a teenager, yet i face the racial interferences in my life living in the US. This book proves a lot and well deserves the 5 stars i rated it/

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2014

    Illuminating

    As I read this book I couldn't understand why there was such animosity from the adopted daughter towards her adoptive father. In the reading, I gained insight on how hard it is for foreigners to assimilate into American society , having a peaceful existence, but not necessarily have a full emotional connection along with it because they so want not to offend. It makes the daughter much more understandable in the end. I'm afraid of revealing too much, so DO read the book for yourself.

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  • Posted April 6, 2009

    If It Wasn't Required, I Wouldn't Have Read It

    I was required to read this book for the AP English class at my high school. The powers that be have decided that we should read minority literature rather than the classics that helped shape our culture. The books we've enjoyed have stood the test of time (like Pride and Prejudice), but this will not be among them. Best wishes to all those who did enjoy it, and had the opportunity to pick it for themselves.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2002

    a book to be remembered..

    As a person living in a gesture life myself, I felt as if I was reading my old dusty diary, only at a different point of life and at a different point in time of our history. The book is wonderfully written with unfolding stories that have glued me to it for the past couple of days. However, why am I getting a feeling that someone with little Asian background will not be able to truly identify him or her self with Doc Hara, the man who is the living example of Asian values; modesty and politeness?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2002

    Get it from the library

    An okay read. Didn't read Native Speaker (which seems to have been the better book, as per reviewers here).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2000

    Lee hit the mark again

    While not as good as Native Speaker, I believe that all of the reviews submitted here are missing part of the eloquence of the story. The slow pace, the disjointed narration in some parts, the emphasis placed on writing style over substance... these all mirror Doc Hata's life. He emphasized style over substance. He was slow and steady. His life was disjointed by several different factors. A close reading of this book shows that Lee's writing IS Doc Hata's life. I felt like I was reading the Asian American version of Death of a Salesman. The only thing that really disappointed me was the 'happy' ending. I wanted his life to fade away into the nothingness that he had built up.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2000

    essay topic

    Okay, i was supposed to read this book for an essay to do in my english class, and i have to say that it was pretty impressive! ididn't like that the spoken parts were sorta hard to figure out who was talking, but other than that, it was good! a must read!

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    Posted January 11, 2009

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    Posted January 27, 2009

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    Posted December 27, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2009

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