FREE LIFE is the immigrant story for our times.
As the book opens, the reader is introduced to Pingping and Nan Wu,
who have traveled cross country to pick up their six-year-old son,
Taotao, whose exodus from China they have finally been able to
effect. Taotao has not seen his father since he came to America to
attend graduate school four years earlier. His mother left China
two-and-a-half years later, leaving Taotao in the care of her
parents. It is no surprise that after only several days in America,
Taotao announces that he is ready to go back home to his
grandparents, a fact to which it takes him a long time to become
A scholar in every aspect, Nan drops out of graduate school on the
heels of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which led to meetings with
fellow Chinese students where many forms of protest were discussed,
including kidnapping the MIT student children of high-ranking
Chinese officials. After a fairly standard protest in DC, Nan
returns disenchanted, disturbed and determined to give up his
graduate studies in the field of Political Science, a field chosen
for him by his government.
The family now begins a long evolution. Previously, Nan had
envisioned a future involving books, letters, poetry and the mind.
Now, forgoing his student stipend, earning a living and
establishing a life that provides both security and financial
independence for his family becomes a necessity.
From serving as caretaker in a wealthy, divorcee doctor’s
home (with Pingping), to working as a security guard, to factory
work, restaurant service in New York and other various jobs, Nan
becomes a downright, sometimes downtrodden, blue-collar American
immigrant worker. Underneath it all is the support and frugality of
Pingping. Her intensity to provide for both today, tomorrow and the
future often dominates everything. The family eventually finds
themselves in possession of a Chinese restaurant in Atlanta, a
decent home they pay off very quickly and a son with whom
they seem to never make a connection.
Through it all, Nan’s dream of literary success never wanes.
Nor do his thoughts of Beina, the lover with whom he broke years
earlier. While much of the books 600 pages is devoted to the
everyday struggles of this family while pursuing what is, for them,
the American dream of home and business ownership and --- more
importantly --- no debt, there arrives a climax as Nan forces
himself to come to terms with the decisions he has made, the paths
he could have taken and the choices he still could make. Watching
his return to China to confront the ghosts of his past, and a
journey to Iowa to face what could have been his future, is a
jumble of emotions for both Nan and the reader.
Pingping’s ceaseless devotion to Nan, her acceptance of his
half-love for her, a late-in-life pregnancy and more combine to
make her a sympathetic character who carries the weight of the
entire family’s emotions on her shoulders. Jin often pits the
couple against each other, and most often, one must root for
The final 30 pages of the book are titled “The Poems of Nan
Wu.” These are presented as the poetry Nan has been
scribbling all these years, some of which he sent to publishers and
schools such as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. These pages are
so beautiful and so insightful that they establish a side of Nan, a
glimpse inside him, that has evaded the reader up until then. Taken
with the end of the book, they provide redemption for Nan and a
depth to the man around whom this novel revolves.
There are so many other storylines within these pages, it is hard
to truly do justice in so few words. Yes, it is an ordinary tale of
relatively ordinary lives, but it is their story and Jin
makes you really care about these lives, whatever may happen in
them. It is a book I find myself thinking about even now, months
after putting it down. I handed it off to a very well-read teacher
friend at a baseball tournament our sons were playing in. On the
third day of the tourney, she handed it back, praising it
effusively and scolding Jin for “keeping her up too
late.” We watched our boys play baseball, living out the
American dream in Cooperstown, New York, while --- side by side ---
we both contemplated the version of that same dream that Jin had
painted. I truly feel that A FREE LIFE should be considered
now, and for a long while, to be the voice of the immigrant
experience of our time.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 22, 2011
A Free Life