If nothing else, choosing to retell a revered classic as a first novel requires either supreme spunk or reckless fatuity. For Patricia Park – who happens to be a thesis-advisee and protégée of National Book Award-winning author Ha Jin (who also provides the first glowing blurb on the book’s back cover) – her nimble debut is more daring success than imprudent misstep.
Let’s start with the clever title, Re Jane, with its tri-fold interpretations: 1. An identification of our heroine; 2. A succinct statement that the narrative is “about Jane”; and 3. An homage to literature’s most famous Jane – as in Eyre.
Jane Re (Re being a “Western perversion” of the common Korean family name Ee – including Lee, Yi, Rhee) is just out of college, living back at home, and hoping to find a job outside the family business. Jane is a “Korean-ish” orphan – she’s honhyol, that is, half Korean, half Caucasian American. She’s lived most of her life with her maternal uncle, his wife, their two children, in the Korean enclave of Flushing, New York, where “your personal business was communal property.” Instead of going to Columbia University – a decision her family never overlooks – she chose to forego the stifling financial obligations and graduated instead from CUNY Baruch. Her promised Wall Street job has fallen through, so she’s back working at her hypercritical uncle’s grocery store.
She’s survived by following the rules of nunchi – literally "eye sense," an untranslatable Korean “ability to read a situation and anticipate how you were expected to behave.” Longing for independence, her life is choked with tap-tap-hae, “an overwhelming discomfort pressing down on you physically, psychologically.”
When a friend hands her an employment ad for an au pair job, Jane initially balks, but she’s increasingly frantic to catch her breath and goes for an interview anyway. Although located in neighboring Brooklyn, the Mazer-Farley brownstone is another world. Beth Mazer is a brilliant feminist scholar and professor. Ed Farley is still ABD (All-But-Dissertation) and also teaches. Their daughter Devon is a precocious 9-year-old with an impressive vocabulary to complement her adult-like conversational skills. The family's "Village Voice" listing opens with the statement: “We wish to invite into our family an au pair (i.e., a live-in ‘babysitter’ although n.b. we take issue with such infantilizing labels; seeing as the term has yet to be eradicated from the vernacular, we have opted – albeit reluctantly – to use it in this text for the sole purposes of engaging in the lingua franca)…."
The verbiage quickly exceeded the space limit, thereby dropping one of the prime job requirements – to be a Chinese speaker and to encourage Devon’s language skills as she is a Chinese adoptee. In spite of the “miscommunication,” furthered by Beth and Ed's inability to tell the difference between Chinese and Korean – and Beth’s ensuing “mortified” apologies of “’Please don’t think I’m one of those people who assumes’” – Jane moves in.
Reader, you might think you know what happens, but you’d only partially be right.
The "madwoman in the attic" tutors Jane weekly in her fourth-story office – her "retreat from the nonsense of the world," a space that later seems so callously violated. She exposes Jane to “intertextuality,” “hegemony,” “post-structuralism,” and alerts her that “[b]eauty is a social construct that forces females to pander to the male gaze.” The not-so-suffering husband feeds Jane middle-of-the-night hero sandwiches with unlikely combinations like prosciutto and figs. Devon, Jane's young charge, mirrors much of Jane’s sense of other, of not belonging even among family and friends.
Just before 9/11, Jane flees the inevitable complications of her new household for her birth city of Seoul when her grandfather dies. The novel’s second half follows Jane trying to find her place – again – among extended family, new friends, and a society into which she was born but not necessarily accepted. Her longing to belong eventually brings her back to New York, where unfinished conversations, expectations, and relationships must be confronted and translated anew.
Queens-born-and-raised Korean American Park moves between two cultures with agile empathy. Her own experiences as a hyphenated American sensitively enhance her characterizations of Jane’s mixed-race status and Devon’s transracial adoptee challenges. Through Jane’s return to Korea, Park addresses the immigration conundrums of evolving language and transitioning culture between those who left, and those who stayed – mixing sharp insight, droll wit, and bittersweet irony.
Park’s novel is so much more than a mere retelling of "Jane Eyre," that to label the book as such feels like a limiting disservice. Readers should feel free to take this "Jane" as is – an astute, resonating, humorous, discerning, original debut.