Summary: Chapter 1

A Gesture Life opens with Franklin “Doc” Hata discussing how much he has grown accustomed to the people and lifestyle in the affluent town of Bedley Run, where he has lived for the past thirty years. Bedley Run resides fifty minutes north of New York City, and when Doc Hata first read about it in 1963, the place had just been cleared for development. The town appealed to him despite its desolate appearance. Whereas other suburbs had felt unwelcoming, Doc Hata felt welcomed and encouraged to play a role in establishing this town. In the present time of the novel, around 1993, Doc Hata has become very well-known and respected in the Bedley Run community.

Doc Hata explains that, despite the moniker “Doc,” he is not, in fact, a doctor. Rather, he ran a medical supply store in town that became something of an informal clinic where he always provided his customers with friendly advice. Doc Hata reflects that some people may think he has relied too much on his welcoming demeanor to gain the approval of others. He reflects, too, that it’s difficult to understand why a person acts the way they do and indeed difficult for a person to understand even their own actions.

Doc Hata describes his store, Sunny Medical Supply, which has fallen into disrepair now that he’s sold it to James and Anne Hickey, a young couple from the city. The store hasn’t done well since the sale, and James suspects that Doc Hata knowingly sold them a dying business.

A few days ago, Doc Hata dropped into the store to check in on its new proprietors. James and Anne had just been arguing. James felt overwhelmed by financial troubles, and he took his frustration out on Doc Hata. Anne apologized and thanked Doc Hata for his kindness. Doc Hata stayed and spoke with Anne, who told him that their son, Patrick, had a congenital heart disease and urgently awaited a heart transplant. She also informed him that they were in danger of losing the store to the bank since they hadn’t paid their mortgage in several months.

When customers came into the store, Doc Hata took his leave, and Anne accompanied him outside to say goodbye. He thinks she picked up this social custom from watching him when he used to own the store.

Before Doc Hata left, Anne remembered to give him a box of photographs that she found in the storeroom. She remarked on the photos of a young girl. Doc Hata said she must be talking about Sunny, and he explained that Sunny, the namesake of the medical supply store, had come from Japan to stay with him while she was in school. Upon leaving, Doc Hata wished he hadn’t lied about Sunny, but he had felt unprepared to talk about her.

Doc Hata walked back to his house, and later that evening, he stood in the doorway to the room where Sunny used to live. He thought about the effort it took to clear the room of her belongings and to meticulously patch and repaint the ceiling and the walls.

Analysis: Chapter 1

A Gesture Life takes place in Bedley Run, a wealthy suburb of New York City and a symbol for the prototypical American aspiration for upward class mobility. When Doc Hata left Japan and immigrated the United States thirty years ago, he longed to leave his past behind and make a fresh start in life. Bedley Run offered a perfect opportunity for a new beginning. Though located in affluent Westchester County, Bedley Run had not yet been developed. Doc Hata saw this nascent township as a blank slate. Not only could he contribute to developing the town and its community, but in the process, he would also be able to remake himself. Like the others who moved to Bedley Run, Doc Hata had an industrious spirit that he put to work in the service of commerce. He established a medical supply store, the growing success of which enabled him to purchase his Tudor-style house, ideally situated in the posh Mountainview neighborhood. With business keeping steady, he spent years steadily restoring his home to picturesque perfection. Doc Hata now fully belongs among the wealthy elite of Bedley Run, a town that enabled him to realize the American dream.

Doc Hata’s reflections on the challenge of really knowing another person create uncertainty about how much the reader will be able to truly understand Doc Hata. As a part of his reflections, Doc Hata establishes a distinction between a person’s actions and their essence. He indicates that, under strenuous circumstances, an individual may act in ways that contradict who they really are. This means a person cannot know others solely in terms of what they do and must work harder to discover “what is actual and essential to a person.” Yet despite this hypothesis, Doc Hata attends closely to the actions of others. For instance, he notes that Anne Hickey doesn’t just accompany him to the door but actually steps out of the shop with him to say goodbye. Doc Hata understands this as a social gesture that carries real meaning and makes him feel good. As someone who focuses on actions but denies that they can reveal a person’s essential self, Doc Hata remains plagued by uncertainty about who other people really are. And since he knows himself primarily through his own routines and habits, this implies that he also remains uncertain about who he really is.

The lie Doc Hata instinctively tells to Anne about Sunny indicates a readiness to deny his relationship with his adopted daughter, both in public and to himself. Anne’s question about who Sunny was found Doc Hata unprepared, and he led Anne to believe that she was an exchange student who lived with him very briefly. Doc Hata tells the reader that he immediately regretted the lie, and he implies that he said it without even thinking. The fact that he would instinctively lie about his daughter suggests that he has long tried to keep his negative feelings about her at bay and doesn’t want to acknowledge them by discussing them with others. The end of the chapter clearly indicates that Doc Hata has worked hard to forget the challenges he faced trying to raise Sunny. Standing at the door to Sunny’s old room, he recalls how he meticulously spackled and repainted the walls and the ceiling after she left. The obsessive desire to cover up all the blemishes and restore the room to perfection symbolizes a parallel desire to forget about Sunny and focus on his life in the present.