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Native Speaker

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  6,190 ratings  ·  565 reviews

In Native Speaker, author Chang-rae Lee introduces readers to Henry Park. Park has spent his entire life trying to become a true American—a native speaker. But even as the essence of his adopted country continues to elude him, his Korean heritage seems to drift further and further away.

Park's harsh Korean upbringing has taught him to hide his emotions, to remember
Paperback, 349 pages
Published 1996 by Riverhead (first published 1995)
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Average rating 3.72  · 
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 ·  6,190 ratings  ·  565 reviews

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aPriL does feral sometimes
This is a brilliant, thoughtful, subject-packed, angst-riddled, almost-noir, teeters-on-the-edge-of-soap-opera, and finally, an excellent literary first novel by a very wise writer. 'Native Speaker' is powerful and superb.

It is one of those novels where its strengths are also its weaknesses.

Ostensibly, this is narrated by a very depressed second-generation American, Korean-American Henry Park. Park is separated from his wife, separated from his son, separated from his Korean-born father and
Aug 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
There were too many themes that just never connected. I don't know if it was a story of immigrant alienation, political corruption or family tragedy. And the writing was verbose. My mind would wander while he was doing some long description and I would miss a major event like a bombing or a child's death; then have to reread the section to find out what happened. Then the book just ended with no real resolution. Maybe that was the point, that life continues, or as his wise mother said, "Over the ...more
Zöe Yu
Dec 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american, korean
I read Amy Tam and Sour Sweet, I suppose to have more echoes from these Chinese immigrants decedents, but I felt nothing. These authors haven't touched the point in your heart that you will share the same feelings. However, in this book I could identify myself with him, the protagonist, identify the feeling even with Henry's father. I understand it. I believe that almost every immigrant had those thoughts from time to time. Not only because that my face could pass as a Korean in most of Korean ...more
Jul 25, 2008 rated it did not like it
I'm surprised at how uneven this book is--the writing is very inconsistent, and the characterizations are thin and uncompelling. As for the plot, I can only assume that it was written with selling the movie rights in mind? It borders on the ridiculous.

And, it falls into one of my most hated cliches--the dead baby story. The baby died and then I suddenly found myself reevaluating my life. The baby died and then my relationship was on the rocks. The baby died and I almost lost my job. The baby
Jessica Woodbury
Jun 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: authors-of-color
I've been meaning to read this book since I was bowled over by ON SUCH A FULL SEA a few years ago. NATIVE SPEAKER is a more traditional literary novel, but a distinctly modern one, with layers upon layers of meaning. It feels like Chang-Rae Lee can do anything.

Henry Park is the child of Korean immigrants, brought up in Queens, immersed in Korean culture but comfortable in his multicultural American world in a way his parents can never be. While I've read books about 2nd-generation immigrants
Jul 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: spies
I really enjoyed this while I was reading it, but when I finished and tried to remember why I was going to give it four stars, the only reason I could come up with is that it wasn't about WWI or WWII, like nearly every other book I've read this summer.
Chang-Rae Lee teaches creative writing at Princeton, and while I've never taken a class with him, I hear he's a pretty great professor. That coupled with the fact that my friend Tanya loves this book made it a must-read. I appreciated the way Lee
Alex Timberman
Jan 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: asian-literature
What a fine book. Native Speaker won the Hemmingway award for being the best first novel of a writer. The author is Chang-rae Lee who is the creative writing professor at Princeton University. He immigrated when he was young to live in the United States.

I had my doubts that he could really identify with the Korean immigrant experience, since I too immigrated at an early age, but never really felt like I was on the outside looking in on American culture. I’m not sure if he did as well but the
Feb 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
A challenging look at race, self-identity, assimilation (or the lack thereof) and being stuck in the interstices. Lee writes lovely prose (maybe just a wee melodramatic/bogs down at times) but a fast read despite its emotional heft. He doesn't shy away from the awkwardly painful/un-pc -- although really, the wife is a sometimes. I mean, who would EVER refer to their husband as "yellow peril: neo-American"????
Jan 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, immigrants

Henry Park is a man of secrets. Part of it is his Korean inheritance, assimilating with American culture in an almost seamless way, marrying an American wife. And part of it is the fact that he is a spy.

It's a freelance operation that he is part of, doing covert jobs for any number of clients, and that work has contributed to a growing sense that Henry is losing his way. He and his wife are separated, torn apart by the accidental death of their young son. But Henry's work and his almost
Jan 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
So fortuitous that I read this now. It's timely. It's such an incredible feeling to read the right book at the right time.

There were plot points that I felt didn't deserve five stars. The writing definitely does, and this was a case where the end of the book redeemed the weakness of any earlier plot lines I felt dissatisfied with earlier. The book definitely gets stronger and more compelling as you continue reading. In any case, despite its few weaknesses, it was the first thing I've finished
Mar 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Lovers of good fiction.
This novel is amazing! I don't know how I could have missed it for almost 15 years. The author is Korean born, raised and educated in the United States (Yale, MFA from University of Oregon, now teaches at Princeton.)

Henry Park, the main character, was raised in New York City by Korean immigrants, so as is usual in first novels, there is some autobiographical influence here. Henry's father, who had been an electrical engineer in Korea, built up a successful chain of small grocery stores in the
Nov 30, 2010 rated it liked it
not really sure what i think about this book. insightful. The protagonist, Henry Park - and Chang-rae Lee himself - had a much different experience growing up as a Korean-American than I did. Interesting how that is. i: no real ties to my Korean heritage, raised by altogether American parents (some lingering Polish influence at best) mainly in American suburbia (what seems to be the life-suck of immigrant culture). Lee/Park: infinite ties to his heritage, raised by Korean parents in a city where ...more
Jade Keller
Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
If you've heard me talk about Chang-rae Lee's book, "The Surrendered," you'll know I'm simply enamored of his work. "Native Speaker" is his debut novel and I was excited to read it because it deals with the immigrant experience: about being American, but nevertheless a perpetual outsider, from two worlds and belonging to neither. It's the story of a Korean-American, whose marriage with his white wife is on shaky ground, while his career leads him into dangerous paths that force him to choose ...more
Jared Della Rocca
Native Speaker utilizes a spy novel to explore the issues immigrants face in America. But in trying to cross genres, it ended up feeling a little flat. The "spy" portion (which I'm being overly generous using that term) was never quite defined. Henry Park's company does corporate espionage, for lack of a better term, but the company is broad-brushed and his co-workers tend to be vaporous. The structure wasn't clear, and the references to his last assignment, which was partially viewed as a ...more
Jan 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
Though I couldn't have predicted it from the first couple of chapters, this book ended up captivating me. I found it hard to settle into the prose - the beginning of the book seemed a little far-fetched (moles for hire? really?), and I wanted more details about the overarching losses that so clearly framed the protagonist's life.

And yet - the moment the author begins to dip into the protagonist's past; the moment the book begins to consider family, tradition, immigration, belonging; the moment
Nov 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: revisiting-books
I liked this book much better on my second reading, twelve years later. The writing is uneven at times (especially in dialogue–which is so funny, given the themes, that at times it’s hard to tell if it’s actually a deliberate technique) (and at the beginning too–but lots of writers can’t write a good beginning)–but it’s a first novel, so. Most people, I think, read it as a personal-experience immigrant story, or the story of an unraveling marriage, and of course it is; it’s even a good immigrant ...more
Apr 25, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: education
The stiff manner of dialogue in this book really turned me off from the start, nothing seemed to have a heartbeat. I was expecting to enjoy this story about an outsider looking in, trying to find home, but it came off as completely dry and humorless. The story lacks momentum and the narrator has very little charm, he just seems self-pitying and morose throughout. Strangely enough, I respected his parents and kind of wished they wrote the book, particularly his mom who was constantly dropping ...more
Dec 26, 2016 rated it liked it
I loved reading this book. It took me a while to really get into it, but I love the fact that it describes the experience of being an immigrant so well.

I like it much more that the Junot Diaz book everyone loves so much, and I think speaking of the experience, of starting over in a country that is not yours, is an important one.

And if it is written as beautifully as this one, better still.

Patrick McCoy
Sep 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
A friend recommended Native Speaker by Korean American writer Chang Rae Lee, so I picked it up in a used book store and forgot about it. Then when I read Gary Shyteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, he thanked Chang Rae Lee for helping him become a novelist and that reminded me of the book on my shelf, so I picked it up read it. Both Shytengart and Lee have written New York novels about identity in what is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Both novelists are also mainly ...more
Apr 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
So all during my cross-country tour for grad school interviews, this book I borrowed from Lauren was waiting for me in my suitcase. I kept reading other things..."Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," "No Reservations," and InStyle magazine, mainly. Quick airport reads. I'm really glad I finally committed myself to reading this. I was off to a slow start, but as the book progresses, the language becomes ever more deliberate and ever more beautiful. I've read a lot of contemporary fiction about ...more
We live in an era where "ethnic" American writers are supposed to go over a few talking points: establishing their own identity, coping with the pressures of an immigrant family, and a celebration of the multiethnic, democratic America. In Native Speaker, the protagonist radically fails to establish his own identity, despises his father but realizes that his worldview is still shaped by these nightmarish, arbitrary Confucian doctrines, and the multiethnic, democratic America is chaotic and ...more
May 06, 2009 rated it it was ok
Chang-Rae Lee has some really beautiful turns of phrase, and his insight into the struggles of assimilating into the American culture is illuminating, but I still wonder if there aren't a hundred better ways to tell this story. The main character is supposed to be outwardly cold and indistinguishable, and ultimately that's how I felt about the narrative. The dialogue, in particular, irked me -- it was too stilted and over-informative. Nothing and no one in this book seemed realistic or ...more
Dec 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
looking forward to a class with this chiller this quarter :)
Dec 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quiet but Powerful

I loved A Gesture Life, which I read a few years ago. Native Speaker is Chang-rae Lee’s debut novel. Written in 1996, the themes of assimilation and being true to your culture are still relevant today. I find Lee’s writing to be quiet and introspective, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The book did drag for me in places, but it was still a good reading experience overall.

The novel is about Henry Park. He was born in America to Korean parents. He tries to eschew
Jun 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
I veer between three and four stars. It didn't leave me unaffected; there is a grace in Lee's style, and from the very first pages one settles into the prose, trusting its soft, contemporary elegance.

But overall, Native Speaker seems to be a great, absurd fiction spun as cover for a memoir - as if the more melodramatic the plot (and here it is far too melodramatic, consciously so), the easier it is to mask a true story. But the book fools no one. Lee could have written his memoir alone, and it
Jul 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Henry Park is a model Korean American. His father, a trained psychiatrist from the prestigious Seoul National University, immigrates to America to take up a noble, honorable profession: grocer. Henry, or Harry as he's called by friends, studies hard, obeys his parents and tries to find his balance as he tip-toes between two worlds - the ways of the old country and that of the new.

As he grows older, Harry continues, as he would say, 'marching west', always 'marching west'. He winces at the
Susan Kwon
Nov 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The most insightful book of the year of my own judgement. Maybe because I am Korean. There are so many issues to think about. Especially,Korean immigrant experiences that are not yet unseen or untold. The first generation of immigrant, a father. A proud, intelligent Korean man comes to America to be a grocer in New York. He hides his proud, emotions, but only shows stiff strength, cold business mind. The second generation, a Korean-American son, Henry Park. He is a epitome of confused "between." ...more
Brian Grover
Jun 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
On Such A Full Sea is probably the only dystopian novel I've read in the last five years that I've enjoyed, so I tagged Lee as an author I wanted to read again. This, his debut novel, is his most acclaimed work, so why not?

It's the story of a Korean-American man living in New York City named Henry Park. Henry is struggling with his job, which is some weird CIA-esque position where he gains the confidence of various people and files reports on them. He's also still recovering from the tragic
Janet K
Apr 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 01, 2014 rated it liked it
Packed with all the emotions of angst, anxiety, anger, and everything that comes along with exploring what it means to 'assimilate' into the wonderful 'melting pot' that is 'multicultural' "liberal America" (read: white supremacist), Native Speaker does its job.

It is a novel of layered meanings with meanings beneath meanings. It attempts to address race relations, the contradictory American myth, and the violent realities of people of color and immigrants in white America.

Yet, the novel
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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
“I'm a B+ student of life.” 21 likes
“And perhaps most I loved this about her, her helpless way, love it still, how she can't hide a single thing, that she looks hurt when she is hurt, seems happy when happy. That I know at every moment the precise place where she stands. What else can move a man like me, who would find nothing as siren or comforting?” 16 likes
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