A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee is a taut, suspenseful story about love, family, and community, and the secrets we all harbor. It is the story of a proper man, an upstanding citizen who comes to epitomize the decorous values of his New York suburban town. Yet as his story unfolds, precipitated by events that take place around him, we see his life begin to unravel.
Courteous, honest, hardworking, and impenetrable, Franklin Hata, a Japanese man of Korean birth, is careful never to overstep his bounds. He makes his neighbors feel comfortable in his presence, keeps his garden well tended, bids his customers good-bye at the doorway to his medical supply shop, and ignores the taunts of local boys. Now facing his retirement years alone, Hata begins to reflect on the price he's had to pay for living this quiet "gesture life."
After suffering minor injuries in an accidental fire, he remembers the painful, failed relationships of his past; with Mary Burns, a widow with whom he had an affair, and with Sunny, a Korean girl he adopted when she was seven, who is now a grown woman he hasn't spoken to or seen in years. As Hata recalls the strained, troubled relationship with Sunny, he begins to understand why his daughter, unlike himself, "felt no more at home in this town, or in this house of mine, or perhaps even with me, than when she first arrived at Kennedy Airport."
Unknown to Sunny, there is a secret that has shaped the core of Hata's being; his terrible, forbidden love for a young Korean woman from his past. Serving as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II, Hata was assigned the task of overseeing the female "volunteers; women taken against their will to provide sexual favors for the men in the battalion. One of these "comfort women" he came to love. These remembrances, tinged with grief and regret, ultimately draw Hata once again to his daughter; and help him begin to attain a more truthful understanding of himself.