PEN/Faulkner Award - Waiting, by Ha Jin

Waiting is the story of a man, Lin, who lives in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. He is a doctor in a military hospital, and is satisfied with his life there. His aging parents live in a remote village, and want to arrange a marriage for Lin, so that the wife will care for them in their illness and old age. Lin agrees, and so he is married to Shuyu, a devoted and old fashioned woman who cares very well for Lin's parents, and gives him a daughter, Min. Lin does not love Shuyu, and never has, but he is grateful to her for all that she has done for him and for his family. He is too ashamed of her to bring her to the city where he lives for most of the year, however, because she is so old fashioned and has bound feet. So Shuyu and Min continue to live in the countryside, even after the death of Lin's parents, and they are content there.

Lin finds himself falling in love with a modern woman who works with him at the hospital, Manna. Manna wants Lin to divorce Shuyu, so that he can marry her. Every summer, Lin goes home to request a divorce, and sometimes Shuyu says yes, and sometimes she says no, but when the time comes to go before the judge, she can never go through with it, so they stay married. The law says that Lin can divorce Shuyu after they have been separated (have not slept together) for 18 years, without her consent. So begins the waiting...Lin and Manna are waiting to be together, and they decide not to consummate their relationship until they are husband and wife.

This book showed some of the sad practicality that can determine a person's life. Lin would never have chosen Shuyu as a wife, had he had a choice...but he didn't have a choice. He needed someone to care for his parents. Manna has times when she is more than willing to give up on Lin, because she realizes it is going to be a long, hard journey, and might fall apart before the 18 years is up. But her other opportunities to marry are few and far between, and her reputation is pretty much destroyed by her relationship with Lin, even though they are celibate.

Shuyu, the dedicated, loyal wife, is the only one with any choice in the story...she may not have chosen to spend her best years caring for her husband's aging parents, but she loves them and sees it as her duty, and does not resent the obligation. She chooses to stay married to Lin as long as possible, even knowing that he does not want to be married to her anymore. She is the character in the story with whom I was most sympathetic, even though she didn't get a lot of time dedicated to her story.

Lin mostly irritated me. He couldn't be loyal to his wife, and yet I was never sure he was truly passionate about Minna, and just sort of went along with her idea of how things should go. He did have the decency to realize that by being her 'boyfriend' he had destroyed her opportunities elsewhere, but he wasn't aware enough ahead of time to make it easier for her.

From a western point of view, we might be willing to give Lin the benefit of the doubt...why should he stay in a loveless marriage, when he has a chance to be happy elsewhere? He is willing to continue supporting his wife and (now grown) daughter, so they will not be affected much by a divorce. But I didn't see that divorcing her made him any happier. He just went from one set of obligations to another. When faced with this realization, a voice inside of Lin tells him:
Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others' opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace.

Overall, the book was well written, but I found it dissatisfying. The end promised no resolution to the issues at hand, and no happiness for Lin, which was frustrating. Not that he was miserable...just more of the same, sleepwalking through life.

I read this book for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. It won the PEN/Faulkner award, in 2000.