A Gesture Life: A Novel

A Gesture Life: A Novel

by Chang-rae Lee


$15.76 $17.00 Save 7% Current price is $15.76, Original price is $17. You Save 7%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, March 2
134 New & Used Starting at $1.99


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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573228282
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2000
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 238,053
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 1200L (what's this?)
Age Range: 18 Years

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, 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.


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

July 29, 1965

Place of Birth:

Seoul, Korea


B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993

What People are Saying About This

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

Reading Group Guide


This acclaimed novel tells the story of Franklin "Doc" Hata, a Japanese immigrant who leads a proper, decorous life in a New York suburb. As his life slowly unravels, he is transported back to his days as a medic in the Japanese army in World War II, and his obsessive love of a young comfort woman.



Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, QPB's New Voices Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and the Oregon Book Award. It was also an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for a PEN West Award, and Lee was named a finalist for Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40 Award. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and numerous anthologies. He lives in New Jersey, and is the director of the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.


"Not since Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day has there been a novel so attentive to the interplay of dark memory and light manners...a beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book."

—New York Times Book Review

"Exceptional...A beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it."

—Christian Science Monitor

"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."

—Chicago Tribune

"Lee elegantly creates suspense out of the seemingly static story of a man trying hard not to feel...a wise and humane novel that 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, New York Times

"Powerful...A Gesture Life is about what we lose when we lock up everything we have...the writing is sure and convincing, the characters vivid, and the war story unforgettable."



  • Why does Franklin "Doc" Hata place such importance upon his status in the town of Bedley Run? Does he ever feel truly welcome in the community? What does Hata mean when he states, "I’ve actually come to develop an unexpected condition of transparence here, a walking case of others’ certitude" (pp. 21-22)? At the novel’s conclusion, has there been an evolution in the Bedley Run residents’ attitude toward him, or has the transformation occurred within him?
  • Why does Mr. Hickey’s increasing malevolence toward Hata fail to surprise Hata? How do Hata’s experiences in the Imperial Army influence his feelings toward each member of the Hickey family? What does Hata mean by his statement, "It is the vulnerability of people that has long haunted me" (p. 220)? How does his attitude toward vulnerability, both others’ and his own, change as the novel progresses?
  • On several occasions, the reader witnesses Doc Hata in a critical situation when a timely word from him could prevent a great deal of pain for someone he loves. Yet, time after time, he finds himself unable to utter the words that are most needed. Discuss some of these occasions, particularly those involving Sunny, Mary Burns, and Mrs. Hickey? What are the results of his remaining mute? Why does his sense of the "appropriate moment and space" (p. 150) impede his acting out of love?
  • Hata introduces the reader to Sunny in this way: "Sunny, I’m afraid, always hated the house" (p. 26). How does this sentence both set up and encapsulate the narrative of their life together? In what ways does the Hata home seem almost to be a character in the novel? What has to happen to this "character" at the end of the book, in order for the protagonist to triumph and be redeemed? How does Hata’s obsessive attention to the house become symbolic of his failing relationship with his daughters?
  • Doc Hata feels a lifelong emotional burden with respect to his relationship with his adoptive parents: "I am only uncertain of my honoring of them, which I am always failing in" (p. 244). How has this insecurity affected the way he lives? How does it influence the expectations he holds for his own adoption of Sunny? Do his experiences with the "comfort women" during the war either explain or justify his shortcomings as a father?
  • What does Sunny mean when she accuses him of making "a whole life out of gestures and politeness" (p. 95)? Is Captain Ono correct in his assessment of his Lieutenant: "You . . . too much depend upon generous fate and gesture. There is no internal possession, no embodiment. Thus you fail in some measure always" (p. 266)?
  • Why does Hata’s relationship with Mary Burns end so anticlimactically? Is Sunny partly to blame for the failure of the love affair? Why, or why not? Is there an aspect of Mary’s personality that dooms the affair? Of Hata’s? At the beach, Hata tells Renny, "There are those who would gladly give up all they have gained in the world to have relented just once when it mattered" (p. 321). When and why has Hata failed to relent in his relationships? Does this constitute an admission of guilt or regret on his part?
  • Hata’s narrative voice is calm and measured, and his persona is that of the sage who has learned much in the course of his life. Yet, on occasion, his equanimity is replaced by either an accusatory tone or confusion about his own emotions. Do you consider him a reliable narrator? How does the author’s avoidance of chronological storytelling contribute to your understanding of Hata’s character?
  • Is it significant that the two male characters, for whom Hata feels the most tenderness, Thomas and Renny, are also considered minorities in Bedley Run? Whereas Hata was "never infected to the marrow" by Sunny in her childhood, how and why does he feel differently about his grandson? What does he learn from Thomas? From Renny?
  • How does Hata’s discovery that K is pregnant (pp. 270-271) compare to his learning about Sunny’s first pregnancy (pp. 282-284)? How does the former experience affect his response to the latter? What does Franklin realize about himself after discussing the abortion with Sunny years later? Compare the end of Hata’s relationship with K with his loss of Sunny. How did his evasion of reality contribute to the end of each relationship?
  • At the end of A Gesture Life when Hata makes his final arrangements for his life, what do you make of his decision to be "on the outside looking in" (p. 356) Is this the resolution you expected? Why or why not?

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

A Gesture Life 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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/
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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?
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
LB121100 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Don't read this book if you don't like deep novels. This one makes you go very deep into the characters and it is sometimes disturbing. I thought it was a wonderful story and very well-written.
KWoman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Started out somewhat interesting, but lost me immediately. Was never able to regain any interest at all.
TigsW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a beautifully written book. Though the theme was grey and took a long time to play out I just could not put the book down. The main character, Franklin Hata, a Korean raised by foster Japanese parents never manages during his life to connect with his emotions, undoubtedly because of some combination of cultural factors (the reserve and subjugation encouraged by Japanese culture at that time) and the devastating events that spot his life. He remains apparently detached from significant emotional events, but the book shows in writing about his inner thinking about these events that he is actually deeply affected, but he fails to express this because his response is always moderated by what are probably wrongly conceived notions of others' needs. A beatuful and exquisitly written book.
bfolds on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Quiet, beautiful book that sneaks up on you. Beautiful language, very deft creation of a sense of place.
Eurydice on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An elegant portrayal of the devastation wreaked by war, even in lives whose surface remains placid.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
An okay read. Didn't read Native Speaker (which seems to have been the better book, as per reviewers here).
Muffin-Man More than 1 year ago
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.