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A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee - Book Review


A Gesture Life
Chang-Rae Lee
Granta Books

Fiction-Net Rating 5 Star Rated Book

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Cover Story

Franklin Hata, Korean by birth but raised in Japan, is an outsider in American society but he embodies the values of the town he calls his own. He is polite and keeps himself to himself. The reasons for his solitude and self-control are laid bare as the mystery of Hata's wartime past is revealed.

We Say

Chang-Rae Lee's novel, A Gesture Life is a phenomenal look at a simple man's life. America is filled with immigrants from every part of the world and while one would like to believe that diversity brings about understanding, the truth is, Americans like to place people into neat categories. It takes too much time to understand someone from another culture.

In his novel, A Gesture Life, Chang-Rae Lee explores the life of a well respected member of an American community. Doc Hata, as he is known, is a man who has spent his life fulfilling all of life's little expectations. In a society filled with the need for immediate gratification and instant success, Doc Hata is a mystery to many who know him. With simplicity and style, Lee takes us on a journey through the seemingly simplistic life of Doc Hata. By the end of the novel, the reader may decide that it isn't such a bad thing after all to have lived one's life through a series of "gestures and politeness."

Doc Hata is a Japanese immigrant who is actually Korean. Adopted by a Japanese family when he is young, Doc Hata feels a responsibility to make them proud. He does not want to give his adoptive parents any reason to regret the fact that they adopted a poor Korean. This motivation is the foundation of Doc's life. Throughout the novel Lee does an excellent job providing the reader with insights into Doc Hata's life. Doc Hata is a man who is living up to the expectations of being the ideal citizen because it is what he believes people expect of a Japanese American. Ironically enough, Doc Hata is a Korean playing at being an ideal Japanese and Japanese American.

Doc Hata's adopted daughter, Sunny, provides the reader with an honest if not painful 'American' assessment of Doc's life. While Doc does his best to provide for Sunny, the cultural gap and the generation gap prove to be the undoing of their relationship. Neither character is able to understand the other's motivation. Tragically the two misunderstand each other with painful consequences. Sunny views all of the kind things that Doc Hata does for others as burdens of obligation that the recipients must bear. Doc Hata believes that his actions have earned him a position of respect in the community. Lee's candid examination of this relationship provides the reader with insight into this immigrant's desire to be a model citizen.

Today, many feel the need to break free from such constraints as politeness and social expectation. Be your own person, be an individual no matter what the cost. While many would view Doc Hata's life as empty and quaint, for Doc, it is apparent that his life is more than satisfactory to him. It is all about priorities. Even Doc Hata's short romance with the woman down the street ends gradually with little or no fanfare. Once again, the very reasons that people are drawn to him ultimately cause the misunderstandings which destroy the relationship. Despite initial appearances, Doc Hata's life is filled with tragedy but he does not dwell on these tragedies in pitiful heartrending scenes. Some may think Doc Hata is unfeeling, others may argue that he is a man who is able to accept tragedy as a part of life.

Overall, I found Chang-Rae Lee's book wonderfully written. It is a novel that is filled with moments of overwhelming heartbreak and simple triumphs. The author is able to evoke feelings of mourning for lost opportunities without an overburdened sense of melodrama that seems to fill many books today. A Gesture Life is both satisfying and intriguing.

Review by: Yumi Nagasaki-Taylor

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