Full title  A Gesture Life

Author Chang-rae Lee

Type of work Novel

Genre Psychological realism

Language English

Time and place written Mid to late 1990s in Bergen County, New Jersey

Date of first publication September 6, 1999

Publisher Riverhead Books

Narrator Doc Hata narrates the events of A Gesture Life from the novel’s present time, in 1993.

Point of view  The narrator, Doc Hata, speaks in the first person about past events as well as events unfolding in the present. Doc Hata narrates from his own subjective perspective, commenting on his life and experience and speculating about the lives and experiences of others.

Tone Elegiac, searching

Tense Present

Setting (time) 1993, with flashbacks to the early-to-mid 1940s and the mid-to-late 1970s

Setting (place) Westchester County, New York

Protagonist Franklin “Doc” Hata

Major conflict The novel’s main conflict plays out in the tumultuous relationship between Doc Hata and his adopted daughter, Sunny. Doc Hata recalls the various stages of their strained family dynamics and his trouble raising such a willful, angry, and rebellious youth.

Rising action Doc Hata recollects his failed relationships with K, a Korean comfort woman he met during World War II, and Mary Burns, an American woman he dated while Sunny was young. In the present time, he also strikes up a tentative friendship with Anne Hickey, a woman who bought Doc Hata’s now-failing medical supply business with her husband. Even as Doc Hata’s friendships with women in the past and present shed light on his inability to develop sustained relationships, he struggles to connect with Sunny through her son, Tommy.

Climax A series of tragic and near-tragic accidents take place in quick succession, including Anne Hickey’s fatal car accident, James Hickey’s gruesome leg injury at his wife’s funeral, Tommy’s near drowning at the beach, and Renny’s heart attack. The confluence of events convinces Doc Hata that he stands “at the vortex of bad happenings,” and that he must take decisive action to prevent further harm to those around him.

Falling action Doc Hata acknowledges his deep regret about arranging for Sunny to have a late-term abortion when she was eighteen. Though he broaches the subject with Sunny, he doesn’t tell her that he assisted the doctor who performed the surgery.

Themes The Challenge of Assimilation; Parent-Child Relationships; The Danger of Inaction

Motifs Race; Disappearance; The Present

Symbols The Black Flag; Doc Hata’s House; The Heart

Foreshadowing Lee uses foreshadowing subtly in the novel, and it usually takes the form of a veiled reference to a particularly important or traumatic past event, such as Sunny’s abortion or K’s murder, that Doc Hata will not elaborate on until later in the novel.