A FREE LIFE by Joseph J. Ellis


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A Chinese immigrant family’s experience of 1990s America is treated at epic length in this heartfelt new novel from the NBA-winning author of Waiting (1999).

Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Nan Wu, seeking a better life for his wife Pingping and their son Taotao, precedes them to America, where he briefly studies political science before realizing he must abandon his ambition of living as a poet and novelist and provide for his family—who join him four years later as live-in household staff for a wealthy woman residing in the Boston area. Over the next decade, Nan moves in and out of U.S. literary circles (encountering, among others, Allen Ginsberg–like confrontational poet Sam Fisher), but finds neither satisfactory outlets for his creative energies nor relief from longing for the woman he didn’t marry—all the while subsisting in a companionable, though not loving marriage, and enduring the trials of fatherhood, as Taotao struggles through assimilation and adolescence. The family moves to an Atlanta suburb, operating then purchasing a thriving restaurant, and appear, at last, “Americanized.” But Nan’s conflicted relationships with fellow Chinese-Americans who profess a love for their homeland that he cannot share erodes his energies and keeps him suspended between freedom and tyranny, the workaday world and the ideal realm of literature. The author’s trademark clarity produces numerous lucid, moving scenes, and the gathering weight of the struggles endured by the Wus seizes the reader’s attention. But the book’s amplitude is unselective. When it ends with extracts from Nan’s “Poetry Journals” and 30-plus pages of his deeply autobiographical poems (a blatant echo of Doctor Zhivago, one of Nan’s favorite books), we realize that these concluding pages tell his story far more succinctly than do the bloated 600 pages that precede it.

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

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-375-42465-6
Page count: 672pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2007


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