Thursday, April 15, 2010


A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, 1999, 356 pp

Chang-rae Lee's second novel did not fully work for me. Again he has a protagonist who is adrift between cultures. Franklin Hata was born in Japan to impoverished Korean parents, then adopted out to a Japanese family who raised him with every advantage. He had planned to become a doctor but before he could complete his medical training he was conscripted into the Japanese military. He served throughout WW II as a medic.

When the story opens, Doc Hata has made what he considers a successful life in a small community north of New York City. He owned and ran a medical supply store, got wealthy and has the respect of the entire town. For reasons that are not clear, he adopted a Japanese orphan whom he named Sunny, but when she hit her teenage years she suddenly flipped from super obedient to uncontrollably rebellious and left home. She and Franklin were estranged for six years, though she come back into his life later in the book.

I felt the author did too well in creating his main character. The tone of the writing is Franklin's voice completely but because he is so concerned with his manners, his efforts to "fit in" and because he is so emotionally repressed, I grew to dislike him intensely. His emotional death makes him incapable of dealing with Sunny's problems to the degree that he drives her away. 

Finally after almost 200 pages of this, the man's back story is revealed in bits and pieces. Only then do you learn how he became the man he is. I was sorely tempted to give up on this novel and even though the story made sense in the end and was truly tragic, I had been made to wait so long that I did not care as much as I felt I should have. 

Possibly Lee's slow and controlled pace is an Asian thing, though in his first book, Native Speaker, the action enticed me all the way through. In the war scenes, he does create a highly distressing sense of the Japanese military mind under the Emperor, which fits with American novels I have read about the war in Asia. But this novel was such a departure from his first, that I felt I was reading a different author.  

(A Gesture Life is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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