Summary and book reviews of A Free Life by Ha Jin

A Free Life

By Ha Jin

A Free Life
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2007,
    624 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2009,
    672 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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About this Book

Book Summary

From Ha Jin, the widely-acclaimed, award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash, comes a novel that takes his fiction to a new setting: 1990s America. We follow the Wu family--father Nan, mother Pingping, and son Taotao--as they fully sever their ties with China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and begin a new, free life in the United States.

At first, their future seems well-assured--Nan’s graduate work in political science at Brandeis University would guarantee him a teaching position in China--but after the fallout from Tiananmen, Nan’s disillusionment turns him towards his first love, poetry. Leaving his studies, he takes on a variety of menial jobs while Pingping works for a wealthy widow as a cook and housekeeper. As Nan struggles to adapt to a new language and culture, his love of poetry and literature sustains him through difficult, lean years.

Ha Jin creates a moving, realistic, but always hopeful narrative as Nan moves from Boston to New York to Atlanta, ever in search of financial stability and success, even in a culture that sometimes feels oppressive and hostile. As Pingping and Taotao slowly adjust to American life, Nan still feels a strange, paradoxical attachment to his homeland, though he violently disagrees with Communist policy. And severing all ties--including his love for a woman who rejected him in his youth--proves to be more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

Ha Jin’s prodigious talents are evident in this powerful new book, which brilliantly brings to life the struggles and successes that characterize the contemporary immigrant experience. With its lyrical prose and confident grace, A Free Life is a luminous addition to the works of one of the preeminent writers in America today.

Chapter One

Finally Taotao got his passport and visa. For weeks his parents had feared that China, even if not closing the door outright, would restrict the outflow of people. After the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, all the American airlines except United had canceled their flights to Beijing and Shanghai. At the good news, Pingping burst into tears. She quickly rinsed the colander in which she had drained the shredded turnip for her jellyfish salad, took off her apron, and set out with her husband, Nan Wu, for the town center of Woodland, where the office of Travel International was located.

The plane ticket cost seventy percent more than the regular fare because it had not been purchased three weeks in advance. The Wus didn't hesitate; as long as Taotao could get out of China in time and safely, it was worth any price. They also bought round-trip tickets from Boston to San Francisco for themselves.

Neither Pingping nor Nan could go back to China to fetch Taotao, who ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

Nan Wu is a Chinese graduate student in political science at Brandeis University when the Tiananmen Square massacre changes everything for him. Because of his activity with a prodemocracy group, it is now impossible for him to return to China to take up the academic career he had been working toward. His wife, Pingping, is already with him in Boston; their six-year-old son, Taotao, who has been living with his grandparents in Jinan, is finally able to join them. Nan has not seen his son for four years, and Taotao doesn't remember his father. Reunited now in exile, they must all begin a new life.

Nan soon decides that political science, the field of study assigned to him by the Chinese government, does ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Readers will fall into separate camps over A Free Life. Something about Jin's detached, yet obsessively attentive prose is ultimately readable, and produces a style that some will read as refreshingly spare and realist, while others find stunted and astoundingly boring. The bottom line: If you've never read anything by Ha Jin, definitely read Waiting first. If you're one of many who read Waiting and loved it, then try out A Free Life. Already attuned to his stripped prose styling, you'll be interested to see what happens when he removes the layer of exoticism and lays bare the classic immigrant story with his meticulous rendering and trademark reserve.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
The New York Sun - Hua Hsu

Much like Mr. Jin's breakthrough novel, Waiting, a great deal of A Free Life describes how men frequently rationalize their emotional unavailability by claiming a higher purpose — in this case, it is the inextinguishable fire of poetry. These men hurt those around them, so as not to damage them permanently: Nan constantly fantasizes about escape from his loveless obligations to his wife and son, yet he refuses to leave them, which occasionally seems like the crueler fate.

Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

How do you convey the splendor of a novel when the first adjectives that spring to mind are among the deadliest in a critic's repertoire? Ha Jin's new book is ''long,'' ''earnest,'' and ''slow-moving.'' His prose is ''plain'' and ''quaint,'' his settings ''drab,'' and his characters ''humble'' and ''melancholy.'' Yet A Free Life is one of the most powerful novels of the year, a richly textured and quietly engrossing portrait of the artist as a Chinese immigrant marooned in suburban Atlanta. Rated "A".

Kirkus Reviews

A book that has obviously been labored over, yet still feels inchoate and unfocused.

Publishers Weekly

[W]hile Ha Jin's novel lacks Zhivago's epic grandeur, his biggest feat may be making the reader wonder whether the trivialities of American life are not, in some ways, as strange and barbaric as the upheavals of revolution.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. Capacious, pointillistic, empathic, and tender, Ha Jin's tale of one immigrant family's odyssey in America affirms humankind's essential mission, to honor life.

Reader Reviews
Louise J.

Inspirational
Ha Jin does a wonderful job of bringing the awareness of immigration to the forefront in this novel. Each day, immigrants often have to deal with the process of identity change and racism due to their colour. Pingping and Nan immigrated to the ...   Read More

Melinda

Why create? A theme explored in A Free Life
I read the BookBrowse review after I'd just begun the book, and almost put it down, but I'm glad I didn't. This is not a page-turning, fast-moving plot; rather, it's an exploration of several themes by an interesting, introspective character, Nan Wu....   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Tiananmen Square Protests

Beginning in mid-April, 1989, thousands of demonstrators anchored by a core group of dissident university students occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In what has been described as the greatest challenge to the communist state in China since its inception in 1949, tens of thousands soon joined in the peaceful protest, angered by widespread governmental corruption and calling for democratic reform.

In May, demonstrations and marches throughout Beijing exceeded one million participants. Late on June 3, 1989, army tanks moved into the square and began firing indiscriminately into the crowd of unarmed protesters. Estimates of the death toll range from 200 to more than 3000, as the Chinese ...

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