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A Gesture Life

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  3,405 Ratings  ·  324 Reviews
A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee is a taut, suspenseful story about love, family, and community, and the secrets we all harbor. It is the story of a proper man, an upstanding citizen who comes to epitomize the decorous values of his New York suburban town. Yet as his story unfolds, precipitated by events that take place around him, we see his life begin to unravel.

Paperback, 384 pages
Published October 1st 2000 by Riverhead Books (first published September 6th 1999)
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Sep 26, 2011 rated it liked it
I almost love this book, but a few things keep me from it.

First, though, I'll tell you why I love it. I love the way the story unfolds. Chang-rae Lee takes his time revealing the story. It comes out in bits and pieces from the first-person perspective of Doc Hata, just as a person would generally reflect on his own life. A scene comes to mind, then something else jumps in and we follow that thread for a bit, then back to the original scene, which is now colored by the tangent. I luxuriated in th
Sang Ik
Dec 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I find it interesting that so many people review books based on their judgement on much of what 'should' have happened or how the book 'should' have been written or even more interestingly, how a character should have been (e.g Dr. Hata was too unemotional, etc). I feel Chang Rae Lee gets the short end of the stick concerning much of this and I find it rather ironic that the character was so ingrained that one would be dissatisfied that intensely. Still - for the reader unacquainted with Lee jus ...more
Dec 22, 2007 rated it liked it
i'd been told this was chang-rae lee's strongest novel, but after having read it, i was very disappointed and don't think it can compare to his previous work, "native speaker." i know the detached, impersonal tone is intentional in this novel, but after a while it gave me the chill of a morgue, the sense i was being told the story not of breathing individuals but of ghosts. that said, perhaps this was intentional as doc hata's past is haunted by people he can no longer reach. still, lee is much ...more
Oct 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
I think Gesture Life goes in my top five favorite books. I recommend it to everyone.

It's about a Korea-born Japanese-American man who is forced to face, and in certain ways is attempting to face, the legacy of a lifetime of refusing to feel. It takes place in the present and goes back and forth to various times in the past. It touches on horrible things that happened during World War II. It's also a thrilling, horrifying page turner, in the WWII sections. It deals with heavy issues, but deals wi
Gail Goetschius
Aug 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A Gesture Life is a beautiful and subtle novel, one of the best I read this year. It is the story of "Doc" Hata , a Korean raised as Japanese who moves to New England after serving as a medic for Japan in WWII. Since childhood Hata has made fitting in and being accepted and respected the single goal of his "gesture" life. In doing so he betrays the three women who are most important to him.

Told in Hata's voice the "Doc" is a classic unreliable narrator . His inaccurate perception of events is a
Dec 03, 2007 rated it did not like it
My dislike and distrust of the subject matter trumps the well-written prose, unfortunately.

I have always had a problem with Chang Rae Lee's portrayal of Asian/Asian American woman. And, really, the tale of a Japanese man (whose character is marked by silent inaction) falling in love with a Korean comfort woman makes me want to throw something against the wall. Especially this book.
Feb 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
How does one fill a void for which there is no hole? This seems to be the question that Franklin Hata is asking as he reflects on his life and the lives that have intertwined with his. How surface acquaintances and weekday friendships can come so easily to a renowned and beloved member of a small, up-scale community, and how, for that same man, all attempts at intimate relationships meet with unparalleled disaster. For all of the various reasons that these relationships fail, one cannot help but ...more
Jun 20, 2011 rated it liked it
I thought that this book started out strong, with beautifully lyrical prose...and then, although the main story was compelling, it kept getting tripped up by flashbacks that told a back story that initially had great potential but then turned into an annoying tale about a man who thinks he has honor but does not. I think the thing that was so annoying to me was that the author could really have done something with that back story. Soldier fancies himself in love with Korean "comfort woman," when ...more
Dec 23, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in international fiction
chang-rae lee is a quiet author whose narratives unfold delicately and fully; like a tightly-wound tea leaf when confronted with boiling water. A Gesture Life was deceptive in its simplicity, in its lulling me into this nuanced narrative of an old korean man living in a small middle-class american town.

i don't always know what to say about a book that i've liked, or what it was about it that "did" it for me. the first novel of lee's that i'd read was native speaker, and it was strong enough to
Feb 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: home-library
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 16, 2014 rated it liked it
This was a tough read. The story unfolds at a slow pace and the narrator's accommodating personality is, at times, repulsive. Two-hundred pages in, I wondered why I was still reading, when there are so many other books out there. Any yet, I had a sense that Lee was going somewhere with this growing ennui and that I just needed to follow him there,

In the last forty pages or so, Lee brings the story to its culmination, and all of the time that he (and thus, readers) has devoted to Franklin Hata's
Sep 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This was a heartbreaking book. A reserved Japanese store owner has settled in a small American town, raising an adopted Korean daughter. He appears to lead a regular working-class life. Later in the novel it is revealed that he was a doctor in the Japanese military during the war and had fallen in love with a Korean comfort woman. What is most painful is the conflict between the man's quiet exterior and the emotional/political life he has led. I admire this novel for addressing the continuing is ...more
This book was so boring that it nearly cured my insomnia. We got the extremely boring life of a Japanese man living in a boring town and doing virtually nothing on every page. Very exciting. We have a supporting cast of annoying and obnoxious characters who bugged the hell out of me, a plot that was going nowhere fast and the book was badly written and uninteresting. This is the second book by this author that I have endured and I hated both of them.

A Gesture Life is another book that was really hard to get into, but the patience paid off. If it hadn't been a book group selection, I might not have stuck with it.

Franklin Hata was a man who was difficult to admire or respect, because he seemed cold and heartless. His stilted relationship with his adopted daughter Sunny just made me sad. He had a chronic difficulty in relating to anyone on a deep, true level.

Presumably, this was because of his difficult
Steven Langdon
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: super
Chang-rae Lee's novel, "A Gesture Life," begins sedately but gradually builds to a crescendo of tragic memories and personal crises that tears apart the seemingly bland existence of "Doc Hata," taking him to his earlier realization that what he had sought to achieve as a person was "something more than a life of gestures." Skillfully weaving together a set of separated strands of Hata's life -- the trauma of his passionate effort to save a Korean "comfort worker" during Japan's occupation of Bur ...more
Feb 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical, fiction, ww2
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. Th ...more
Jun 08, 2009 rated it it was ok
A elderly Japanese man who lives in a well-to-do town in America, who is well-respected in his community and has had success in business, tells his story in a soft voice of philosophical rambling. It is the kind of story where nothing much happens and when things do happen they are ghastly - suddenly and arbitrarily grossly violent and disturbing. All is not as it seems: first of all he is not Japanese, he is Korean. He has relationship problems and abandonment issues. Lest you think I exaggerat ...more
May 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Like an excellent gourmet meal, this book requires some digesting, even after you're done. It shifts back and forth between Japanese soldiers in WWII and their Korean "comfort women," to a small town on the East Coast where a former Japanese soldier has retired. It examines the super-polite, rather repressed nature of Japanese relationships, with the viewpoint character wondering about things he's done in the past, with considerable (if understated) regret.

After finishing it, I really wanted to
Mar 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I had this book for a long time before I read it, because I assumed it had been translated and I always hate that "lost in translation" thing. However, it was written originally in English - so. The story involves an elderly Japanese man who has settled in a small town without any other Asian people and is him retelling his life - but, that is about as clear as things get. As the story goes on, he keeps revealing things about his experiences during World War II, a little at a time, some very hor ...more
Malcolm Pickering
Feb 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
May or may not update this later but . . . the events and actions that take place in the book repelled and sickened me. I felt angry, unhappy and even slightly sad with the despicable and unfortunate circumstances that composed the retelling of Doc Hata's reflection on his life. However there was also concord between my own reactions (towards the book and feeling that I've considered and thought about in general) and Hata's own reflections, emotions and insights . . . I would not read the book a ...more
Bonnie G
May 25, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommended to Bonnie G by: Library shelf
A bit of a downer, but interesting exploration of the thinking of a man. The main character is hiding a lot from the reader, so it is a bit of a mystery, but I didn't really understand the man so it was hard to keep going at times. It was fascinating how removed from him his adopted daughter was, and I couldn't figure out if she had some detachment syndrome or if she detected something missing from her dad. Anyway, it was OK, but not one I would recommend.
Apr 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Franklin Hata lives a "gesture life. " On the surface all is well - he is a successful and proper citizen of a suburban town - but he is unable to truly let go and live a full life. The novel moves in a suspenseful way between his experiences as a medic in the Japanese army and the present. I love Lee's writing.
Oct 27, 2013 rated it liked it
A heartbreaking tale of an old man slowly deteriorating while he reminisces about his life as a soldier, father, and citizen. I liked the flashbacks, but the narrative that takes places in the present never really took off. Also, there was a little too much of the internal monologue here, and not enough dialogue.
Jun 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Going through my shelves and re-reading things I originally read years and even decades earlier. Let it never be said that an unreliable, aging memory is all bad. I'm revisiting these books with a new, fresh appreciation.
Feb 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Just a beautiful book. Very dense and full of emotions. Quietly written. This one will stick with me.
May 29, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2009books
I think this isn't the kind of book you can read on an airplane with a 2 year old kicking the back of your seat. I'm sure it is actually a really really great book, but I couldn't get into it.
Mar 31, 2015 rated it really liked it
I'm never so happy to be emotionally shattered as when I'm reading Chang-rae Lee's words.
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Jun 17, 2014 marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: open-book
Started this for a book speed date and wasn't gripped 50 pages. Will donate to local literacy sale.
Jul 29, 2014 rated it liked it
I wish I can explain what this book is trying to say but I can't,
I should not blame on the translation but my "inability" to crack some secret codes hidden "literaturely" by the author.
Mar 15, 2018 rated it liked it
I'm still kind of processing. This was definitely a good book to read in a class. I don't know if I would have pulled much out of it (or even stuck with it) if I had read it on my own. But discussing the symbols and parallels was really cool. Hata as a narrator was interesting and complex, and I like delving into his psyche--even if it's probably impossible to really get at the heart of all of his issues.
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PROSE 1 22 Feb 05, 2008 11:06AM  
  • Monkey Bridge
  • Blu's Hanging
  • American Woman
  • Bone
  • Yellow
  • Typical American
  • Comfort Woman
  • Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans
  • Hunger
  • A Dangerous Friend
  • Once the Shore
  • The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker
  • American Son
  • The Interpreter
  • Water Ghosts
  • Somebody's Daughter
  • Everything Asian
  • Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures
Chang-Rae Lee (born July 29, 1965) is a first-generation Korean American novelist.

Lee was born in Korea in 1965. He emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old. He was raised in Westchester, New York but attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He received his BA in English from Yale University and MFA in Writing from the University of Oregon. He worked
More about Chang-rae Lee...

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“...whether the people are happy or not in their lives, they have learned to keep steadily moving, moving all the time.” 49 likes
“And though the implication is that I am the sort who is always careful and preparing, I that that's not right, either' in fact I feel I have not really been living anywhere or anytime, not for the future and not in the past and not at all of-the-moment, but rather in a lonely dream of an oblivion, the nothing-of-nothing drift from one pulse beat to the next, which is really the most bloodless marking-out, automatic and involuntary. [pp. 320-321]” 7 likes
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