Gesture Life

Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.

A Gesture Life is the elegant story of Franklin “Doc” Hata, a Japanese man living in suburban New York. He is a proper man quietly living out his days after retiring from the medical supply business. He has a beautiful house and garden and what appears to be a calm life. Everyone respects him, but no one really knows him. As we delve deeper into his history we learn of many rippling disturbances. We discover an adoptive daughter, mysteriously estranged from Hata, with a child of her own. We learn of a relationship with a widow who he cared for deeply but to whom he couldn’t quite commit. We don’t even fully understand how close they became or why they drifted apart. Through Hata’s memories we revisit World War II and his position as medic in Rangoon. We watch the unfolding and blossoming of a relationship with “K” a comfort woman; a relationship that ends in tragedy, as most wartime relationships do. In the end, it’s Hata’s relationship with daughter, Sunny, that is the most compelling. Theirs is a deep and complicated bond.
The one gripe? The passage of time (past and present). If it wasn’t a complete mystery to me I only had snippets of understanding. For most of the time it was unclear how much time had really passed in Hata’s present day and trying to do the math didn’t help. At one point he is reunited with his daughter and he guesses her to be 22 years old. I have a problem with this because he also says he hasn’t seen her in 13 years. That means the scene in the drug house took place when Sunny was nine years old. Somehow I can’t see a nine year old engaged in sex with two men at the same time. He also arranged for her to have an abortion…when was that? When Hata sees her again he says it’s as if they are “transported back in time” and he remembers her “lean against the parking meter and smoke her spice-scented cigarettes” (p 209). As a nine year old? Smoking, yes. Sex, while not completely impossible seems unlikely. When Sunny talks about her son she says he is six which would have made Sunny a mother at 16 if she really was only 22. Not completely implausible except it is her second pregnancy. I refrained from trying to put together a CSI timeline, but obviously, Sunny is not 22 years old.

The two quotes I liked, “I am not a long-chase antelope” (p 71) and “…to wonder if something like love is forever victorious, truly conquering all, or if there are those who, like me, remain somehow whole and sovereign, still live unvanquished” (p 216).

As an aside, I can see why Pearl says to read A Gesture Life and Remains of the Day together. Both stories feature an extremely proper yet aging gentleman, looking back over the course of his life. They both have secrets and a way of living that seems to be bound not only by society, but an inner code of conduct.

Reason read: this is a companion read to Remains of the Day, read (erroneously) in honor of Sri Lanka. Here is the funny thing – neither Remains of the Day nor A Gesture Life have anything to do with Sri Lanka in any way shape or form. Both books were used to describe another book, The Hamilton Case which was written by Michelle de Kretser who was born in Sri Lanka.

Author fact: When you pick up A Gesture Life you almost feel you are reading the wrong book. Lee also wrote Native Speaker which won a bunch of different awards. Lee was also named a finalist for Granta’s Best American Novelist Under 40 Award.

Book trivia: The cover to A Gesture Life is stunning. It’s comprised of two different photographs.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust more than once. First, from the chapter called “Companion Reads” (p 65) and again in the chapter called “Pawns of History” (p 182). A Gesture Life is also in More Book Lust in the chapter called “Sri Lanka: Exotic and Troubled” (p 212). Which, as mentioned before, has nothing to do with Sri Lanka.

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