There are ways in which Franklin Hata is the very embodiment of the affluent town he has lived in and served. He has been considered a civic and business leader, because of his long-standing medical supply business. He is a refined, solitary man, virtually the only Asian in his community. His familiarity with the minutiae of the prestigious suburbs makes him seem not only considerably younger than his septuagenarian status, but even the quintessential American.
In his suburban New York village, and alone in his sprawling home, Franklin Hata's past easily could be imagined: children grown and moved away, a wife lost to divorce or death. But Franklin Hata's life has never been that easy, or that full. It has been forged of singular, difficult, non-traditional relationships with women. These relationships have been full of sacrifice, and yet very dignified and restrained in passion; from the five volunteer comfort house girls who were Franklin's charge during his service with the Imperial forces during World War II, to his estranged daughter, adopted not as an infant but as a young, distrustful child. Franklin's deferential relationships with the women in his community (a late lover, an ingratiating realtor), and with his daughter Sunny, are brought to a head as he examines the costs and rewards of involvement and restraint in love. The novel progresses elegantly through passages in both the past and present, drawing together a picture of a tentative man in an insular town; his gradual shifts in who he considers family, friends, and lovers; and through the demise of the business and the growth of a lifestyle for which he worked all his life.
A story that is not fully told until its final, evocative sentence, A Gesture Life is a remarkable follow-up to Chang-Rae Lee's brilliant debut Native Speaker. The portrayal of a Korean-Japanese man in his 70s, who is as easy to identify with as the hero of any American novel, is a worthy accomplishment, only heightened by Lee's prose, which is modern, fluent and full of beauty.
Amber Dorko Stopper is a short story author and contributing editor of TarotViews, the Tarot Special Interest Group of American Mensa.