The protagonist of Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) is Franklin “Doc” Hata, a man of Korean parentage who was adopted by a wealthy Japanese couple and grew up in Japan. Hata, himself, though never married, adopted a racially mixed daughter, Sunny, whom he pushes to excel just as his own adoptive parents pushed him. Sunny, however, proves to be a bit more rebellious than was Hata.
When A Gesture Life opens, Franklin Hata, now retired, is living in Bedley Run, New York, a pillar of respectability and decorum. He takes very good care of his exquisite home, he’s polite to his neighbors and he was almost venerated by the customers who came into his shop. Hata, however, may have missed out on much of life simply because an incident in his youth caused him to “play it safe” and refuse to take chances. Better to live a peaceful, quiet life, albeit a lonely one, Hata decided early on, rather than expose oneself to the pain of heartbreak.
Lee frequently jump-cuts back and forth between Hata’s life “now” in Bedley Run and his youth in Japan. In this way, we learn who Franklin Hata really is and why he makes the choices he does, for even in Japan, Hata felt like an interloper and this feeling of “not belonging” caused him to excel at everything he did, from academic to military work.
The event that, more than any other, set the stage for the rest of Hata’s life occurred while he was in the military: he met and fell in love with a Korean woman called K, a woman sent by the Japanese army to “comfort” its soldiers. Hata denied his feelings for K during the war, and so, partly in an effort to atone and partly to suppress the pain of heartbreak, Hata denied the full flowering to his own emotional life.. He sublimated his own desires.
Lee’s prose in A Gesture Life is elegant and quiet and contains none of the heavy-handed symbolism found in his next (third) novel, Aloft. His transitions from present to past and back again are almost seamless and the pace of the book is slow but steady. A few of the characters are rather one-dimensional, but Hata and Sunny are rich and complex. Although I preferred the narrative that took place during the past, both those and those set in the present are artfully composed.
A Gesture Life is an elegant and beautiful novel and, one that is ultimately very sad. It reminds me and many others of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Franklin Hata, is a man, who, like Stevens, tugs at your heart until you find it impossible to forget him.