Title/Author/Pg: A Free Life by Ha Jin, 660pg
Date Published: October 2007
Date Read: June 4, 2017
Genre: Literary Fiction
I picked up this novel while helping my mom clean out our bookshelves. Amongst century-old art books, I found this lying around! I think someone must have gifted it to my parents, yet no one had read it. I am really interested in stories of the Asian immigrant experience, so I was excited to read this. I have previously read A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin, which I found really interesting, so I had high hopes for this novel (it was also listed as a Notable Book from the NYTimes and others for that year).
However, I have to admit I was let down. In A Free Life, we meet Nan, who has recently come to the United States after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, in 1989. Nan and his wife, Pingping, are desperately waiting for their young son, Taotao, to join them in the United States. After picking him up from the airport, the family returns to their quiet life in Boston, where they live in the attic of a wealthy woman who employs Pingping. Nan aspires to achieve something greater than his simple existence as a student, and night guardsman. He feels that his life is lacking passion, and throughout the novel, struggles with his aspiration to become a poet. This novel tells the story of Nan and his family, as they travel from Boston to Atlanta to try to create a better life for themselves, and their son.
I really enjoyed reading about Nan and Pingping’s struggles and the hardships they faced as Chinese immigrants to the United States. Their qualifications and education were completely ignored in the face of their race, their job prospects diminished, and their social circles remained small as they faced discrimination in their daily lives.
However, these details were not enough to keep me happy with the novel as I continued to read. While this novel tells the story of the immigrant experience, it is also a deep examination of Nan’s character. Usually, I would not be bothered by this, and find it a redeeming and important quality in a novel, but Nan’s personality and personal struggles just grated on me throughout the book. Nan has an intense focus on his ex-girlfriend of six-plus years throughout the majority of the book. The intensity of his focus just seems unrealistic to me, and was very distracting throughout the novel. How can you still be obsessed with a girl who you haven’t seen in years and clearly used you while you were dating her? Nan also sees his ex-girlfriend as the sole inspiration for his poetry–he feels stymied in his writing without a source of passion that he believes only she can provide. I felt this completely absurd, since throughout the novel he has so many experiences and observations to draw inspiration from. Even some of his thoughts are so poetic, yet he ignores this side of him completely. Nan’s focus on his ex-girlfriend acted as a crutch, yet remains the central turning point in the book, and when something finally happens with the situation, it was too little, too late.
I felt that this novel could have been shortened by around 200 pages. Nothing much happens throughout the novel, so it really could have been shortened to create a faster reading pace, and keep the reader (me) completely interested. I do have to admit Jin’s writing style was good enough to keep me steadily reading along, even as I grew more and more frustrated with Nan’s character. I also think that adding more points-of-view would have greatly enhanced this novel, and would have justified its current length. We see some short chapters that address Pingping’s perspective, which I found eye-opening and interesting. However, these are few and far between. I would have enjoyed more of Pingping and Taotao’s perpsective. I especially felt that Taotao was largely ignored, due to Nan’s personality and his position as the main character. Giving Taotao a larger spotlight would also add another dimension to the immigrant perspective displayed in this novel.
Overall, I gave this novel 3/5 stars. Jin’s writing style was what led me to finishing this book, so it deserves three stars for that. I think I’ll still consider reading some more of Ha Jin’s work, but maybe of the shorter variety (if that exists haha). If you’ve ever read any books by Ha Jin, let me know what you thought! I’d love to discuss this novel especially.