Cover image for A gesture life
A gesture life
Lee, Chang-rae.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Riverhead Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
356 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
1270 Lexile.
Format :


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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.

Author Notes

Chang-Rae Lee was born in Korea and moved to the United States when he was a small child. He later attended Yale University and is currently a professor at the University of Oregon.

Lee became the first Korean-American novelist to be published by notable American press with his novel, Native Speaker. The novel was awarded the Heminway Foundation PEN Award. In 2014, he made The New York Times Best Seller List for his title On Such a Full Sea.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Doc Hata is a model citizen in the small, prosperous community of Bedley Run, New York. Polite, silver-haired, and a distinguished minority of one, he earned his nickname at the helm of his medical-supply store, a business he ran with pride. Now retired, he spends his quiet summer days tending the garden that surrounds his grand old house and swimming laps in his slate pool. But as Lee, the author of the prizewinning novel Native Speaker (1996), slowly reveals, this orderliness is a facade painstakingly erected to conceal Hata's profoundly stricken heart. Hata seems to have no family until Sunny comes into gradual focus. Beautiful and wildly defiant, she is his adopted, currently estranged daughter. Hata, who never married, was also adopted. The son of poor ethnic Koreans living in Japan, he was raised by a wealthy Japanese couple. Hoping to become a doctor, he trained as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II. Memories of those harrowing times surface, and what seemed to be a tale of suburban angst metamorphoses into a searing indictment of war. Although Hata never saw combat, he witnessed indelible horrors in camp ignited by the presence of a lovely and doomed comfort woman. As Hata's tragedy-marred life unfolds in both the violent past and the anguished present, the meaning of Lee's title emerges. Psychically wounded, Hata (whose full name, Kurohata, translates as black flag, the sign of a quarantine) is unable to express or accept love, so he depends on correctness, on making the right gesture, to win respect, thus forever remaining one step outside the full embrace of life. This portrait of a man whose soul has been cauterized would resonate in the plainest of tellings, but the glory of Lee's prose--its perfect pitch and pacing and the blazing intensity of each startling scene--makes this a work of inestimable moral and artistic power. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 climaxesÄone 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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Lee follows up his award-winning Native Speaker with the story of Franklin Hata, Korean born, of Japanese heritage, and now living in the New York suburbs. As he recalls painful memories of his involvement with a Korean comfort woman during World War II, Franklin's carefully constructed world starts to crumble. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.