Sunday, June 21, 2015

Book Review: Re Jane by Patricia Park

From Goodreads:

For Jane Re, half-Korean, half-American orphan, Flushing, Queens, is the place she’s been trying to escape from her whole life. Sardonic yet vulnerable, Jane toils, unappreciated, in her strict uncle’s grocery store and politely observes the traditional principle of nunchi (a combination of good manners, hierarchy, and obligation). Desperate for a new life, she’s thrilled to become the au pair for the Mazer-Farleys, two Brooklyn English professors and their adopted Chinese daughter. Inducted into the world of organic food co-ops, and nineteenth–century novels, Jane is the recipient of Beth Mazer’s feminist lectures and Ed Farley’s very male attention. But when a family death interrupts Jane and Ed’s blossoming affair, she flies off to Seoul, leaving New York far behind.

Reconnecting with family, and struggling to learn the ways of modern-day Korea, Jane begins to wonder if Ed Farley is really the man for her. Jane returns to Queens, where she must find a balance between two cultures and accept who she really is.

Re Jane has been billed as a contemporary retelling of Jane Eyre, and that was what originally drew me to this title.  I usually gravitate towards all things Austen, but lately the 19th Century has fascinated me in general.  Jane Eyre is as classic as any Austen novel, although different in tone. It features dark themes and very much follows a bildungsroman motif as Jane grows from a helpless orphan to a strong survivor.  I was intrigued with the premise of Re Jane as author Patricia Park brings this beloved coming-of-age tale to modern New York City, with a half-Korean titular character.

There was much to enjoy in Re Jane.  While not following the Jane Eyre plot note for note, it captured many of the same themes.  Modern Jane also comes into her own through the narrative, as we see her tackling challenges as an orphan living with family, trying to make her way in the world.  Also a nanny, she becomes drawn to a married man, similarly named Edward in this iteration.  She likewise has the opportunity to be involved with another man who seems to be an excellent candidate for a mate, if only on paper.

The concept of setting Re Jane in modern-day New York, with Jane being half-Caucasian, half-Korean was an appealing one.  The story begins just before 9/11, and I was interested in seeing how Park would handle those events with her characters.  I also know very little about Korean culture, evidenced by the casting in my head: I envisioned actress Chloe Bennet as modern Jane.  She is indeed half Asian, but she’s half Chinese, not half Korean. I wondered how the modern Jane Eyre would appear through the Korean lens.

Patricia Park’s writing is excellent and she develops her characters well.  There is no mistaking the type of people who come in and out of Jane’s life.  Their temperaments and quirks were unmistakable, making me feel like they were people I’ve actually known. I could almost see and smell the sights and sounds of New York and the surrounding boroughs. Jane traverses the subways, nightclubs and residences that are characteristic of the New York experience. I was easily transported back to those streets and past experiences.

To my disappointment, however, I ultimately didn’t care for Re Jane when all was said and done. It seemed to be more of a treatise on Korean culture than a re-imagining of Jane Eyre. I certainly expected the Korean aspect of the story, but I suppose I would have enjoyed a bit less of it, with more wafts of Eyre filtered in.  As I was finishing the book, I realized that in truth, I didn’t actually like any of the characters.  I found them boring or even annoying.  This has nothing to do with the Korean aspect of the narrative.  I just didn’t care to spend any more time with these individuals as the story wrapped up.  This may be a backhanded compliment to Patricia Park’s writing—she so distinctly crafted her characters, I was very clear in understanding their perspectives and personalities.  These notions do not have to mirror my own in order for me to enjoy a novel’s characters.  I’ve appreciated many titles which included other cultures and/or characters who are dissimilar to myself.  There just seems to be a lack of chemistry between me and Re Jane.

I’m not recommending that readers should shy away from this title.  The only individuals I would warn are the very conservative, as there are a few adult moments in the story, and at times the language can be a little blue, although it’s not horribly pervasive.  Re Jane definitely has its audience, so I do encourage others who might find this premise to be intriguing to consider it. Patricia Park is a former Fulbright Scholar and has many other credits to her name. This is not surprising, given how well this is written. Unfortunately it just wasn’t a great match for me.

About Patricia Park

Patricia Park is the author of the debut novel Re Jane, a Korean-American retelling of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre set in NYC and Seoul (Viking/PDB, Penguin Random House May 5, 2015). She was born and raised in Queens and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. She received her BA in English literature from Swarthmore College and her MFA in fiction from Boston University. She has taught writing at Boston University, Ewha Womans University Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation, and CUNY Queens College. She was a Fulbright scholar to South Korea, an Emerging Writers fellow with The Center for Fiction, and a Fellow with the American Association of University Women. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, the Guardian, Daily Beast, Slice Magazine, and others. She has been interviewed on MSNBC "Book Report," NPR "Here and Now," WNYC "Brian Lehrer," CBS Radio, and others.

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  1. I confess to being intrigued. I've never read a Jane Eyre retelling and the immersion into Korean culture is a plus. Even though it wasn't a hit, I'm glad you shared about it.

    1. Oh good! Glad to hear it. Thanks for the comment-- I don't feel so bad now!



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