Waiting is a 1999 novel by Chinese-American author Ha Jin which won the National Book Award that year. It is based on a true story that Jin heard from his wife when they were visiting her family at an army hospital in China. At the hospital was an army doctor who had waited eighteen years to get a divorce so he could marry his longtime friend, a nurse.
The plot revolves around the fortunes of three people: Lin Kong, the army doctor; his wife Shuyu, whom he has never loved; and the nurse Manna Wu, his girlfriend at the hospital where he works. Beginning in 1963 and stretching over a twenty-year period, Waiting is set against the background of a changing Chinese society. It contrasts city and country life and shows the restrictions on individual freedoms that are a routine part of life under communism. But Waiting is primarily a novel of character. It presents a portrait of a decent but deeply flawed man, Lin Kong, whose life is spoiled by his inability to experience strong emotions and to love wholeheartedly.
Army doctor Lin Kong married his wife, Shuyu, as decided by his parents. While Lin spent most of his time away from home for his job, Shuyu raised their daughter and cared for both Lin’s dying mother and father. Lin feels no love for her, and once he meets Manna Wu, a nurse at the hospital, he falls in love with her and feels that he must divorce his wife. Year after year, Lin tries to divorce the woman he is embarrassed to be married to, and every year when he comes home for a few days during the holidays, he goes with her to the courthouse, and she agrees that she will consent to the divorce. But each time, once they arrive at the courthouse, she does not consent. Meanwhile, Manna is frustrated that she cannot be with Lin, as each year he promises that Shuyu will agree to divorce him only for Shuyu to refuse consent each time. Though she endures for the sake of Lin, Manna receives unwanted attention for remaining unmarried, particularly by male coworkers who sexually harass her. The “Waiting” of the title refers to Lin’s waiting to divorce Shuyu so he can be with Manna.
He finally succeeds in divorcing Shuyu, thanks to a law that states that, if a man and wife have been separate for 18 years, the man can divorce her without her consent. Once finally with Manna, however, he feels unhappy with her as well, feeling no love for her as he expected out of the belief that they had chosen each other rather than an arranged match. Lin seems to always love the one he doesn’t have. Shortly after Manna gives birth to twin sons, Lin is devastated to learn that her health is failing and he will be left to raise his children alone. During this time, he realizes too late how much he relied on and failed to appreciate Shuyu’s devotion to him. He goes to Shuyu, asking for her to forgive him and to help him raise his children after Manna passes away.