three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
By: 
Ha Jin
user_rating: 
0

A-A Free LifeNan Wu, a graduate student and an aspiring poet, and his wife, Pingping, emigrate from China and, some time later, wait in San Francisco for the arrival of their young son. The "free life" that the now-complete family seeks is the American Dream, a stark contrast to the recent horror of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Traveling much of the eastern half of the country in search of a better life while Nan takes on menial jobs, the family eventually buys a restaurant in suburban Atlanta and establishes a home. Nan's hopes of becoming a writer slowly fade as Pingping starts to thrive in her increasingly comfortable surroundings. Undoubtedly Ha Jin's most autobiographical work to date, A Free Life examines the complexities of freedom, success, and change.
Pantheon. 660 pages. $26. ISBN: 0375424652

St. Petersburg Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Nan must accept his shortcomings, yet he must, for his own sake, keep trying to live the life of the artist. It is in Jin's evocation of this compromise that A Free Life breaks free of the shackles of the novel to become something greater: a love song to the pull of art." Vikram Johri

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the great pleasures in reading A Free Life is that America is rendered slightly alien to the reader, although we recognize it immediately as it wells up in sensitive scenes from the immigrants' experience, in situations highlighted by their general naivete. ... If likened to an American novelist, Ha Jin may bear the closest resemblance to John Steinbeck, both in his relatively simple, straightforward prose and in his novelistic eye." Art Winslow

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"The truest weave of this book needs no decoding. It is the simple, heartbreaking story of a family's quest for solid ground." John Freeman

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"The personal is political, as in Jin's other writing, but none of his other novels loves the English language like A Free Life. It is not a lyrical novel, but it is beautifully written, and Nan's Chinese-English dictionary becomes the icon of an outsider's quest to remove the borders from around human personality." Sarah Cypher

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Most Americans live their lives in the same language they were born into, feeling no more than a mellow love for it. In A Free Life, another excellent book that, like Waiting, involves the thwarted pursuit of passion, Jin has proved, through crystalline prose studded with unusual words, that he has a rare ardor for his adopted language." Jenny Shank

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Jin describes every joy and sorrow in a plain-spoken prose style that moves along with the fluidity of water-supple, unhurried, spontaneous, generous in feeling, containing eddies of hot political argument and wit, and, most of all, generating a deep understanding of hope, mature love and, there is no better word: character." Richard Wallace

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The plot's lack of momentum is exacerbated by the number of potentially exciting events that rise up but come to naught. ... Taken as a whole, A Free Life is a striking demonstration of the poetic success [Nan] craved." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Life, from day to day, seems hardly to alter, yet it shifts beyond recognition over the years -this is what fascinates Jin, apparently, and it's what the Zen-like composure of his prose and his conveyor-belt time-sense seek to demonstrate. This proved, the experimental apparatus keeps on operating, though, repeating the same results with dwindling verve and testing the inner Buddhist in Jin's audience in ways that some may find calming and others sedating." Walter Kirn

San Diego Union-Tribune 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Misjudged slang alternates with stiff formality to create a prose style that seems to fumble toward profundity while slipping frequently into banality. Ha Jin may possess the insight and intelligence needed to extract the many themes his story contains, but he lacks the language, and that's hardly an inconsequential liability." Scott Leibs

Critical Summary

Since emigrating from China to America in the 1980s to study literature, Ha Jin has become one of the most celebrated voices in American literature. A Free Life is his first "American" book, a "Chekhovian portrait of life and its soothing dailiness" (Vikram Johri) that explores the meaning of a truly free life. Critics often comment on the author's lyricism and the fluidity of his prose (interestingly, one reviewer notes a connection between Jin and John Steinbeck, while another noted a deficiency in prose). Although rarely plot-driven, Jin's novels instead unfold slowly-like life itself. A Free Life offers the greatest reward to those who read with patience and in quiet contemplation, absorbing the author's passion for language.