A gesture life

by Chang-rae Lee

Hardcover, 1999





New York : Riverhead Books, c1999.


The secret life of a Japanese-American pharmacist in a small town in New York. On the surface a model of propriety and serenity, he is torn by memories of his service in the Japanese army in World War II and the comfort woman he loved and could not save. By the author of Native Speaker.

Media reviews

In ''Native Speaker'' Lee displayed an admirable, lyrical restraint in the face of an emotional subject: the difficult and sometimes perilous process of becoming an American, and staying one, with the losses and gains that such a battle for identity entails. ''A Gesture Life'' is even more of an achievement. It's a beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book that reveals the shadows that fall constantly from the past, the ones that move darkly on the lawns of the here and now.
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Lee lays out these events in precise, elliptical prose that echoes Hata's own fastidious detachment. He conjures up, with equal authority, the brutal, acrid world of Hata's wartime service and the bucolic, Cheeveresque world of Bedley Run, using small, telling details to suggest each realm's complicated rules of social engagement. At the same time he allows the reader to see why Hata remains an outsider in both places: always trying too hard to fit in, always trying too hard to say the right thing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Eurydice
An elegant portrayal of the devastation wreaked by war, even in lives whose surface remains placid.
LibraryThing member TigsW
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member LB121100
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.
LibraryThing member TPLThing
Chang-rae Lee's 1999 novel had been recommended to me several times over the past several years and it was just a matter of time before I read it. I was not disappointed. Multi-layered, it initially is about a Japanese man, Doc Hata, who lives a very ordinary life in a small town in New England. Of course, that's only the surface and little by little you learn that much has happened in his recent as well as distant past--an adopted daughter from whom he is estranged and horrific incidents during WWII to name a few. This one will stay with you long after you turn the last page.… (more)
LibraryThing member bfolds
Quiet, beautiful book that sneaks up on you. Beautiful language, very deft creation of a sense of place.
LibraryThing member maiamaia
I felt like I hadn't properly understood it, as if i should read it again. Superficially straightforward though. The detached writing style I normally hate about American writing is innate to the subject. Not simple and enjoyable like Native Speaker, and not genre either. Apart from sending everyone to hospital at the end, very beliveable, and understandable: honest. Underrated writer.… (more)
LibraryThing member KWoman
Started out somewhat interesting, but lost me immediately. Was never able to regain any interest at all.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
A Gesture Life is the elegant story of Franklin "Doc" Hata, a Japanese man living in suburban New York. He is a proper man quietly living out his days after retiring from the medical supply business. He has a beautiful house and garden and what appears to be a calm life. Everyone respects him, but no one really knows him. As we delve deeper into his history we learn of many rippling disturbances. We discover an adoptive daughter, mysteriously estranged from Hata, with a child of her own. We learn of a relationship with a widow who he cared for deeply but to whom he couldn't quite commit. We don't even fully understand how close they became or why they drifted apart. Through Hata's memories we revisit World War II and his position as medic in Rangoon. We watch the unfolding and blossoming of a relationship with "K" a comfort woman; a relationship that ends in tragedy, as most wartime relationships do. In the end, it's Hata's relationship with daughter, Sunny, that is the most compelling. Theirs is a deep and complicated bond.… (more)
LibraryThing member Limelite
Lee delivers a disturbing examination of a Korean-born Japanese man who, when a soldier in the Japanese army, falls in love with a comfort-woman. Brutality of that flashback life contrasts with the sedate propriety of Franklin Hata’s upper middle-class Cheeveresque existence. Everything is proper, everything is maintained in order for Hata to fit in. Except the outside fitting-in Hata is in stark contrast to the closed off internal man who has lost the love his daughter and in a Chekovian manner, cannot declare his love for Mary Burns who swims in his pool every Sunday but has no chance of being included beyond that.

The title comes from Sunny, Doc Hata’s adopted daughter, who accuses her father of living an empty life, devoted to the maintenance of standard conventions, filled with empty gestures that do nothing to commit the inner man emotionally to anyone.

By the end of the novel, when events force Hata to re-evaluate himself upon Sunny’s unexpected return with her son, Hata takes bold steps that leave some hope for his emotional redemption, but not much.

Lee’s tone in this novel is restrained, quiet, and emotionally dry, reflecting his narrator’s personality. The details are small and telling as the details of decoration in a classic Japanese home. Lee creates a novel whose action sprawls across two continents and decades of time, but seems to take place in no greater space than a single room in a matter of days, which is practically the case of the “real” setting and time. Claustrophobic atmosphere, artistic prose, deeply flawed hero, explosive secrets combine to equal an excellent read.
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
A slow, introspective book. "Doc" Hata, post-retirement, evaluates his relationship with his adopted daughter and with a now-deceased lover. It is only slowly that his experiences in WWII are revealed, and it is up to us to ponder how they have affected these subsequent relationships.
In some sense, it confirms my opinion of Japanese as being very concerned with maintaining right relations with community, of meeting one's duty, of self abnegation before offending others.… (more)
LibraryThing member tshrope
Chang-rae Lee is an amazing writer. I can’t remember the last time I read writing this good from a Contemporary writer, his prose are beautiful. The story itself is rather secondary to the writing, and honestly in a lesser writer’s hands I would have stopped reading it. The story line is basically two-fold, Franklin Hata’s experience as a Japanese military field medic during WWII where he falls in love with a Korean Comfort woman, and his life in an upper middle-class NY suburb after the war. The story lines are rather depressing and not particularly compelling. I can see why some people have said in reviews that it is boring, and disjointed, but he does such a wonderful job of getting in the skin of Franklin Hata that he pulls you into the character makes you feel Hata’s own quiet desperation.

Lee explores many themes in this book, identity (racial and social), what makes up a life?-is it one that you set up as a window display, or is it one that you actually live and experience without thought of the consequences, and of course it is about relationships; father-daughter, friendships, and romantic love.

I would recommend this book to people who enjoy reading excellent writing, and it would make a good book club selection to explore and discuss the many themes and Hata’s character. This is a book that will no be everyone’s cup of tea though.
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LibraryThing member gilporat
The language and writing is beautiful.


Local notes

Inscribed to Chris by author.


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