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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
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    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445

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A Free Life (Vintage International)

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ISBN13: 9780307278609
ISBN10: 0307278603
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Reading Group Guide

1. From the beginning, the novel presents a structure of very short chapters. Why might Ha Jin have chosen this means of organizing his story, and what is its effect? In what ways does the pace of the novel reflect the rhythms of daily life?

2. What is likable about Nan's character, and what is less so? Do his continuing infatuation with Beina, his lack of love for Pingping [pp. 23, 57–60], and his emotional distance from his son affect your opinion of him, and if so, how?

3. The use of language is an important focus of A Free Life. Ha Jin writes Nan's mistakes and mispronunciations into the dialogue when Nan is speaking in English; when characters speak in Chinese their speech appears in italics. What is the effect of the occasional misuse or noncolloquial use of a word or phrase in English, as when Nan says, for instance, that Sam is “bibulous” [p. 260], that a poet is “well endowed” [p. 305], or when he says in a job interview that he and his co-workers “all got laid together” [p. 25]?

4. The Wus' friendship with Janet and Dave Mitchell involves them in the emotional events of Hailee's adoption from China, as well as the discovery and treatment of her leukemia. At one point Nan is amazed at how emotional Dave becomes when having to choose between two orphan girls; he thinks, “Probably it was their Christian faith that had instilled in them the sense of guilt and enabled them to commiserate with the babies more than theythe Wuscould” [p. 313]. Do you think Christianity is the reason for the Mitchells' sensitivity? Does the episode suggest something about cultural difference or about Nan's own powers of empathy?

5. Responding to Mr. Liu's statement that China should attack Taiwan to maintain its territorial integrity, Nan says, “For the individual human being, what is a country? It's just an idea that binds people together emotionally. But if the country cannot offer the individual a better life, if the country is detrimental to the individual's existence, doesn't the individual have the right to give up the country, to say no to it?” [p. 320]. Do you agree with this statement? What are the reasons that Nan feels he must say no to China?

6. When they deposit the $50,000 check and the woman at the bank looks at them strangely, Pingping realizes, “There was no way this woman could imagine the sacrifice and labor this check embodied” [p. 185]. Would you agree that most native-born Americans are no longer capable of the self-sacrifice and unremitting labor that the Wus engage in? What are the effects of a capitalist and consumerist economy on people's values and behavior, as seen through the eyes of Nan and Pingping?

7. Throughout the story, Nan holds onto the memory of Beina and wants to see her again “in order to preserve her in his memory as a lovely woman beyond his reach, as someone who still possessed his soul, so that the flames of inspiration would blaze in him again” [p. 562]. How do his feelings change after he sees Beina in Illinois [pp. 586-90]?

8. Nan tells Dick that “zer core of American culture” is “obsessed with two s's ... self and sex” [p. 307]. How does Nan react in episodes related to sex [pp. 31–34, 86–90, 544–46, 595–99]? What is the difference between Nan's self-absorption and the self-obsession he sees in Americans?

9. When the Wus sell their restaurant to their friends Shubo and Niyan they are shocked to learn that Shubo won't let Pingping work there [pp. 613–15]. What does this incident, as well as Nan's later visit to his parents in China [pp. 557–60] make clear for Nan about the bonds of friendship and family? How does he respond to the celebration of Halloween in their suburban neighborhood [pp. 271–73], and why?

10. After paying off the mortgage on their house, Nan has a brief period of elation which is followed by a profound sense of disappointment: “The struggle had ended so soon that he felt as though the whole notion of the American dream was shoddy, a hoax. . . . He should feel successful. But somehow the success didn't mean as much to him as it should” [p. 418]. What is the cause of his dismay? How is his distress affected by his conversation with Shubo about the idea that immigrants must sacrifice their own dreams for their children and grandchildren [pp. 420–21]?

11. Observing the culture of moneymaking on his trip to China, Nan thinks, “Now he wanted all the more to live and die in America. How he missed his home in Georgia” [p. 568]. Throughout the story, Nan has felt almost no nostalgia for his life in China. Is this lack of emotional connection to his native culture partly the reason that Nan is willing to risk writing in English? What had come to define “home” for Nan?

12. The story's arc brings to Nan's attention only belatedly what the reader perhaps already feels: that Pingping has proven herself from the beginning the stronger and steadier character. She has left her native country to be with a husband she knows does not love her, she accepts his moods and his anger, and she works daily with their son to make sure he succeeds at school. How do Pingping's pregnancy and the loss of the baby girl affect their marriage [p. 469]? How does Nan come to realize Pingping's worth [p. 612]? What does his poem “Belated Love” [pp. 619–20] express about his new knowledge?

13. How would you describe the prose style of the novel? What are the notable aspects of the narration and what kinds of details does it bring into focus? Do you assume that the narration is mainly from Nan's point of view; is it a more objective third-person narration, or does it shift between the two?

14. Regarding his poetic vocation, Nan thinks, “The truth was that he had been frightened by the overwhelming odds against writing in English artistically, against claiming his existence in this new land, and against becoming a truly independent man who followed nothing but his own heart. To date he had tried every way to wriggle out of the struggle” [p. 472]. How do the poems at the end of the volume reflect Nan's new independence? What does the “free life” of the title mean for him?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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AnneW, November 26, 2010 (view all comments by AnneW)
Glimpses of a moment in this book come back to me months after reading. Storytelling at its best, covering a lifetime, so satisfying to read. Exceptional.
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raymond bednar, January 4, 2010 (view all comments by raymond bednar)
Ha Jin has written a masterpiece in A Free Life. This is an attempt at the Great American Novel, by someone whose first language is not English, but Chinese. He succeeds. I imagine it is autobiographical in parts but he is also describing universal themes experienced by Americans and immigrant born Americans alike. In the last century Thomas Bell wrote an epic novel, Out of the Furnace, where he described the immigrant story of Slovak immigrants. Ha Jin's novel touches on similar themes but he is completely original in the poetry and descriptions of his characters. The book has an appendix of beautiful poetry that is attributed to the main character in the novel, which one can assume is Ha Jin himself. This novel will take the reader on a journey from China to America, back to China and finally back to America. I recommend this novel to everyone.
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(3 of 5 readers found this comment helpful)
CIM, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by CIM)
Ha Jin's _A Free Life_ is a moving portrait of the hopes, dreams, and perseverance of Chinese immigrants in the US. In a decade where the US experienced many challenges, _A Free Life_ reminded me why immigrants still yearn to live here and it made me a little bit less skeptical about the continuing relevance of the American Dream.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780307278609
Author:
Jin, Ha
Publisher:
Vintage International
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Family life
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage International
Publication Date:
20090131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
672
Dimensions:
8 x 5.15 x 1.19 in 1 lb

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Family Life

A Free Life (Vintage International) Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$5.95 In Stock
Product details 672 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780307278609 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , From the acclaimed, award-winning author of "Waiting" and "War Trash" comes a new novel that eloquently re-imagines the American immigrant saga. Jin tells the story of the Wu family, as it sets out on a journey through contemporary America in search of a sense of belonging.
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