Jane as a Young Korean-American in NYC

Modernized versions of the Jane Eyre story come in many forms, from the girl-meets-rock-star saga Jane to supernatural gothic tales to erotica. The latest one I read, though, Patricia Park's novel Re Jane, skips over-the-top plot devices. It tells the believable story of a young Korean-American woman coming of age in Queens, New York.

(Before proceeding with this review, I should note that Park and I are graduates of the same college. Although our times there didn't nearly overlap, and we've never met, I feel it proper to highlight any connection between author and reviewer.)

This novel is similar to its protagonist: a hybrid, split between opposing influences. Unlike Jane and other retellings, it doesn't simply offer the original story in different trappings. While Jane Eyre is a very conscious influence on Re Jane, the newer novel often charts a far different course.

Beyond the title, many other clues make it clear that the author is paying homage to Jane Eyre. Streets have names such as Gates, Thorn, and Helen. Jane has applied to work at a financial firm called Lowood. A customer at her uncle's grocery store is named Mrs. O'Gall (there's a subtle Jane Eyre reference for you). Occasional bits of Brontë's dialogue show up: everything from "Jane! Jane! Jane!" ... "I am coming! Wait for me!" to a handful of sentences that start with "Reader,". And Jane's late father's name will be familiar to Bronte fans.

Many aspects of the plot and the characters also bring Jane Eyre to mind. Jane Re is an orphan who lives with emotionally abusive relatives until she finds a position as a nanny. In this case, though, she cares for the adopted daughter of an academic couple — a woman who, while she displays a rare level of quirkiness, seems far from clinical insanity, and her husband, whose mind and body both appeal to Jane.

As in Brontë's work, circumstances compel Jane to run off to a distant land — Korea, in this case — where an accomplished man tempts her. While she does return to her previous environs, an idyllic Ferndean-style ending is not in the cards.

This story struck me as similar to Jane Eyre in that the protagonist struggles to find a place that feels like home. As we know, the original Jane, after suffering the privations of Gateshead Hall and Lowood School, discovers that wherever Rochester may be "is my home — my only home." Jane Re felt out of place in the Korean-American neighborhood in Queens, as she (being of mixed parentage) wasn't Korean enough; neither did she fit into society in Seoul. Her story is less about a resolution to her search than about her willingness to maintain it without settling for anything merely tolerable — to both find and make her place in the world.

Jane Re is competently written, with sufficiently interesting expositions of environments and emotions. The prose is functional; it rarely sings, and opportunities for more felicitous phrasing slide by (imagine what imagery a Brontë might have substituted for a line such as "our connection grew all the more deep"). A lot of time is spent explicating and referring to various aspects of Korean culture, and certain terms are repeated to a possibly tiresome degree.

I certainly found Re Jane worth reading, though — partly for the fun of catching similarities to Jane Eyre, and partly as food for thought on Jane Re's freedom to choose courses of action unavailable in the mid 1800s to even the enlightened Jane Eyre. Expectations and possibilities are vastly changed from those days, so it makes sense that today's Jane wouldn't always tread the same path.

So: no rock stars, no zombies, but an eminently readable book that may be viewed as a cousin to Jane Eyre — a relation of whom the original Jane would not be ashamed.