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Paperback A Gesture Life Book

ISBN: 1573228281

ISBN13: 9781573228282

A Gesture Life

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Book 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...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

The price of conformity

"A Gesture Life" is a novel that reads more like a memoir, a sad, melancholic first person narrative by the main characer (Dr. Hata). In a superb elegant style, beautifully written, constrained and at the same time powerfully moving, the author deals with the problem of being an outsider and of conformity in exchange for respectfulness. Dr. Hata is an uneasy psyche, a restrained individual who behind a façade of a well-established and respected person hides a complex and dramatic life struggle. Since his childhood he has felt as an outsider, first as a native Korean who is adopted by a Japanese couple, and then as an immigrant in the U.S.A. With psychological wounds he feels unable to express or integrate the emotion of love into his life, using the shield of politness, of integrity, living his life as a sequence of appropriate "gestures." By acting as such, he describes his life as "something exemplary to the sensation of near perfect lightness of being in a place and not being there... the trouble of finding a remedy but not quite a cure... such is the cast of my belonging, molding to whatever is at hand."The novel has a double time frame setting, one based on past memories of Hata's experience as a paramedic in the Japanese army, and the second focused on the present. Hata's relationship with the opposite sex has failed (with the comfort women "K," with Mary Burns, and with his own daughter) and when he reviews the outcome he finds guilt and regret, whole-heartedly admitting "there are those who would gladly give up all they have gained in the world to have relented just once when it mattered."How much can an individual sacrifice his own-self, how high a price must he pay in order to adapt to his surroundings and conform to what is expected from him? How much does evasion of reality affect a relationship? Because of Hata's attitude he has remained detached, never within the full embrace of life, and having to face painful consequences.This novel is a wonderful psychological drama, artistically performed, poignant, shocking at times, but above all a moving tale of a human condition.

Haunting and Insidious

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.

Reviewed by

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. The comfort women, as they were called, were essentially kidnapped from their homes in Korea and brought to the camps, where their service to the war effort consisted of serving as sex slaves to the soldiers. "Although it was the most naive and vacant of notions to think that anyone would willingly give herself to such a fate, like everyone else I had assumed the girls had indeed been 'volunteers', as they were always called. To the men in the queue, they were nothing, or less than nothing; ..." Young Franklin is assigned to guard one of the girls, whom he calls K, for his Captain's exclusive use. Over the course of her confinement, he falls in love with this desperate girl, with predictably tragic consequences. As he describes his anguished feelings for K, the reader begins to understand what it has cost Franklin merely to survive with his sanity intact. The relationship between Franklin's past and his Bedley Run present is another intriguing aspect of the novel. It is easy to see a substitute for his beloved K in his adoption of a Korean child, yet his emotional scars prevent him from being an effective father. He sees where he could and should be more insistent, but he always chooses the easiest, least unpleasant path. The consequences of fully committing to an impulse may leave one outside the polit

Excruciating subject matter told in soaring, elegant prose

It was perhaps a mistake to read A Gesture Life in one day, immersing myself so totally in the head of protagonist/narrator Doc Hata. His tragically flawed character and the attendant traumas in his life make for an intricately crafted narrative from which I admit I had to take many breathing breaks. But this narrative style, another testament to Lee's incredible capacity for expression, is not about punishing the reader. (By only a scattering of overpacked sentences and some fairly crucial editing mistakes was I ever bothered.) See, this book is not so much about action as reaction, and most importantly, introspection, an obsessive self-examination. It is about a man who has been an outsider on so many different levels, and as such, has been compelled to consider his every action and word, and whether he does or does not fit into his surroundings. This kind of careful living, this compulsive tiptoeing, is the source of many of the tragedies in this novel. Frustration that readers may feel from the seemingly overwrought writing style is actually empathy that they're sharing with some of the book's other figures who also respond to Hata's way of life. Indeed, it's frustrating and heart-rending to witness Hata beat himself up over his past. This novel, after all, is rife with painful truths that few would like to hear. Thankfully, as always, Lee's poetic sense of language, his skills at creating an entirely visceral set of characters (with telling dialog and physical description), unusual plot situations, and vivid setting -- all down to the most minute and vital details -- made the reading of the novel well worth the heartache and the ten consecutive hours I devoted to it.Many times, I was reminded of two other masterfully written novels, Philip Roth's American Pastoral (for the bewildering breach of a father's total devotion) and Stewart David Ikeda's What the Scarecrow Said (for the town that smacked of a whitewashed Establishment and for the persistent awareness of being an outsider).Like Native Speaker, A Gesture Life is a book that will stick with me for a long time and that I will be rereading several times.

Shocking and Sanguine and Completely Original

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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