A Gesture Life takes place in 1993 in Bedley Run, an affluent suburb of New York City. Franklin Hata is a recently retired Japanese immigrant in his seventies. He moved to the Bedley Run thirty years ago and has since developed a reputation as a key part of the town’s social bedrock. His successful medical supply store has also contributed to the town’s thriving business district, earning him the affectionate nickname “Doc.” Now retired from his store, Doc Hata remains just as industrious as ever. He swims laps in his pool every morning, goes for two-hour walks every afternoon, and makes polite conversation with everyone he meets in town.
One day, Doc Hata goes to visit his old store, now in the possession of James and Anne Hickey, a young couple who recently moved to Bedley Run from the city with their son, Patrick. The Hickeys are under dire financial strain, both because the store has not been profitable since they took it over and because of the medical bills from their son’s congenital heart condition. James is upset with Doc Hata because he thinks the older man knowingly sold them a dying business, but Anne remains on friendly terms with him.
Back at home in his pristinely manicured Tudor-style home, Doc Hata lights a fire in his hearth and burns old insurance records from the store. He receives a call from Liv Crawford, an ambitious local real estate agent who wishes to sell his house. Although Doc Hata has repeatedly told her he isn’t ready to sell, she has taken the liberty of driving an interested couple by the house. Just as she explains that they are in the car outside, the carpet in the living room catches fire. Liv rushes in and pulls Doc Hata out, but he suffers from smoke inhalation and must go to the hospital for treatment.
Old friends visit Doc Hata at the hospital, including Renny Banerjee, with whom Doc Hata used to work, and Sally Como, a former Bedley Run police officer whom Doc Hata helped secure her job. Sally tells Doc Hata that she now works in security at the mall in the neighboring, working-class township of Ebbington and that she’s seen his daughter Sunny working there.
Soon after leaving the hospital, Doc Hata drives to the Ebbington mall and reunites with his adopted daughter Sunny for the first time in thirteen years. They haven’t seen each other since she left home at the age of eighteen, and though awkward, their reunion goes smoothly. Sunny is now a single mother to a young boy named Tommy, and though she doesn’t want Tommy to know that Doc Hata is his grandfather, she does allow her father to meet Tommy, take him on outings, and teach him how to swim.
Although the narrative of Doc Hata’s reunion with Sunny forms the novel’s central plot, threaded throughout this narrative are three strands of memory that Doc Hata has long repressed but are now resurfacing. Each of these strands of memory relates to his strained and sometimes tragic relationships with women.
The first strand, and the one that takes up the most space in the novel, concerns Doc Hata’s experience as a field medical officer in the Japanese army during the final days of World War II. He was stationed in Burma, and he recalls the period when a group of five young girls arrived at the camp to provide the soldiers with sex. Doc Hata had the responsibility of ensuring the girls could perform their duties. Despite his general disinterest in sex workers, Doc Hata fell in love with a Korean girl named K. He wanted to comfort K, and he fantasized about living together after the war. But when she rejected his fantasies and wanted his help to escape her life through suicide, he refused to assist her. Later, she injured an officer who tried to have sex with her. The officer and other soldiers dragged her into the jungle, where they raped and murdered her.
The second strand of memory relates to a woman named Mary Burns, a widow with whom Doc Hata developed a brief intimate relationship soon after he adopted Sunny. Mary strove to connect with Sunny, but her efforts failed, and though she and Doc Hata initially had a strong connection, this too faded. Doc Hata has never fully understood what drove Mary away.
The third strand of memory concerns Doc Hata’s difficult relationship with Sunny, who had a sullen and angry personality from the time she first came to live with him at the age of seven. Once she reached high school, she became increasingly rebellious. She made friends with delinquents and became sexually active. At seventeen, she ran away to New York City with her boyfriend, and a year later, she contacted Doc Hata for help getting an abortion. She had already carried her pregnancy close to full term, but Doc Hata convinced a physician he knew to perform the illegal abortion. Doc Hata assisted in the operation.
These three strands of memory converge around a series of disturbing events in the novel’s present time. Doc Hata learns that Anne Hickey was in a fatal car crash driving home from visiting her son in the hospital. Some days later, at the beach, Tommy almost drowns, and Renny has a near-fatal heart attack. In the aftermath of these events, Doc Hata suspects that he is somehow responsible and that he should leave. He decides to sell his home and use the money to do some good. He plans to pay for Patrick Hickey’s hospital expenses. He will also buy James Hickey’s mortgage and put Sunny’s name on the title to the building, hoping that she’ll agree to live there and run her own store. Doc Hata isn’t sure about his own plans, but he thinks he might go west and “live out modestly the rest of [his] unappointed days.”