Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609
Originally meant to tell the story of a Korean “comfort woman” during World War II from her point of view, A Gesture Life was eventually changed by Chang-rae Lee to focus on a potential tormentor of the comfort women. The novel begins as the first-person narrator, Franklin “Doc” Hata, is apparently at ease with his life in his seventies. Well-accepted, integrated, and esteemed in his fictional suburban New York community of Bedley Run, he owns a large home with pool and appears to be an immigrant success story. After selling the medical supply shop he has run for more than thirty years to a young family, he looks set to enjoy tranquil retirement.
It is after a minor fire accident sends him to a hospital that Hata’s exemplary life begins to unravel as he reviews his existence in a series of sustained flashbacks. Born in Korea, as a young child he was adopted by a Japanese family and raised in Japan, assimilated into Japanese culture and language. Having lost his Korean birth name, he was called Ziro Kurohata. Introducing the historical fact of the assimilation of Koreans into imperial Japan serves Lee an interesting counterpoint to the assimilation of Asian Americans in the United States and makes his protagonist twice removed from the place where he lives now.
Drafted into the Japanese army as a paramedic in World War II, he finds himself in 1944 in a remote outpost in Burma. Suddenly, five Korean “comfort women” are brought to camp. Historically, the Japanese army forced or tricked women from conquered Asian territories, particularly Korea, to submit to sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers. The protagonist bonds with the most attractive of the five, elegant Kkutaeh, who was raised like him in Japan and reserved for the commanding officer. Their common Korean heritage and language reinforce their bond, but the protagonist fails to save her from death.
After the war, the protagonist immigrates to the United States, shortening his name to Hata and adopting Franklin as first name, thereby substituting one assumed identity for another. He attempts to live an exemplary, cultivated life but refuses to emotionally attach himself to anyone. A lifelong bachelor, his American girlfriend, the kindly widow Mary Burns, eventually leaves him because of this emotional coldness; she dies while he is recovering in the hospital.
Hata’s adoption of a young orphan girl of partial Korean heritage, Sunny, serves as his gesture of atonement for his wartime failure to save his lover. However, his decision to raise his daughter with the highest standards fails as she rebels against what she calls his empty “gesture life,” a life designed only as a gesture to impress society. In a telling scene, Sunny asks her father to let her help him with home improvement, only to be told not to bother and to continue practicing the piano.
Hata’s refusal to let Sunny bond with him leads her to become wild. By the time the novel opens, the reader learns later, Sunny has run away with a drug dealer and is pregnant.
Shocked after his accident, the death of Mary Burns, and his mental assessment of his life, Hata decides to change. He finds Sunny and promises to support her with the baby. Thus, A Gesture Life ends on a hopeful note of redemption, as Hata is seen to cast off his armor of emotional detachment that has alienated him from his loved one.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (July, 1999): 1894.
Library Journal 124 (July, 1999): 133.
The Nation 269 (October 25, 1999): 40.
The New York Times, August 31, 1999, p. B7.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (September 5, 1999): 6.
People Weekly 52 (September 27, 1999): 53.
Publishers Weekly 246 (July 19, 1999): 181.
Time 154 (September 27, 1999): 97.
Vogue 189 (September, 1999): 487.
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