New in paperback: Re Jane: A Novel by Patricia Park
Patricia Park’s charming debut novel, Re Jane, is a coming of age story. Its eponymous heroine, Jane Re, is a young woman who happens to be an orphan; her father was an American who she knows little about and her mother was Korean. Branded “honeyhol” or “mixed blood”, and called a burden by her uncle’s family, with whom she lives, Jane (at first) lives an oppressively humdrum existence in Flushing, Queens, working in the family grocery store.
Re Jane is also a modern re-imagining of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s classic story of an orphan in Victorian England who becomes a governess for a family and falls in love with the father, only to find that his crazy wife is still alive and living in the attic. Reimagining a classic is ambitious, but Park succeeds, using the older novel as a springboard for her modern heroine’s voyage of self-discovery.
Like her protagonist, Park herself grew up Korean in Queens. Though not an orphan, Park is the daughter of immigrant grocery store owners. She attended Bronx Science (one of a handful of prestigious New York City public high schools where admission is determined solely by competitive written examination) and went to Swarthmore, where, the author recounted in a radio interview, she at first had to scramble to learn to fit in.
Bronte’s Jane Eyre resonated with Park, (who read it first at age 12); she was struck by a parallel between the Victorian and Korean view of orphans as outsiders, explaining that her mother would sometimes scold her, in broken English, for “acting like orphan” which meant acting disgracefully. Like many, Park found Bronte’s plucky orphan compelling, saying “she was such a departure from the Disney heroines I was weaned on, and yet she still holds her own.”
Jane Re, too, holds her own and gains ground as, through the course of this gently-paced novel, she ventures out of Queens, first to Brooklyn where she works as an au pair caring for the adopted Chinese daughter of a pair of Brooklyn academics, and then to Seoul, where she discovers previously unknown facts about her mother and father. She returns to the states with a newfound freedom and upgraded sense of her own identity.
Jane’s largely self-reflective journey is narrated in the first person. As the book opens she underscores her own difference to others in the Korean community. She looks different and feels out of place,
I lifted my eyes to the mirror... At first glance I looked Korean enough, but after a more probing exploration across my facial terrain, a dip down into the craters under my eyebrows, or up and over the hint of my nose bridge, you sense that something was a little off. You realized that the face you were staring into was not Korean at all but Koreanish. A face different from every single other face in that church basement.
One of the strengths of Park’s writing is the gentle fun the author has with her characters, sometimes indulging in stereotypes, but writing with great authenticity nonetheless. Readers will likely feel as if they know her Uncle Sang, the Korean grocer, a man of few words who seems to bark when he speaks (but ultimately has a heart of gold). And many of us have encountered someone like Beth (the modern Bertha of Jane Eyre, the crazy attic-dwelling wife), the mother of the family for whom Jane becomes an au pair. Beth is a tiresomely earnest professor of women’s studies whose office is on the top floor of the family’s Brooklyn brownstone. With “her hairy armpits and her complete lack of social grace”, Beth looks, in Jane’s opinion, “a decade too old” for her “broad-shouldered and lean” husband Ed (who would be Bronte’s Mr. Rochester). Beth is also politically correct to the point of controlling the family diet. Soon, Jane and the hunky Ed find themselves meeting nightly for forbidden sandwiches and more (unlike his wife Beth, Ed is not vegetarian but pretends to be). Fate intervenes and their passion for one-another is interrupted by the death of Jane’s grandfather and she returns to Korea for the funeral.
In a powerful plot twist, Jane is unable to return to the US and stays with her kind Aunt Emo, her mother’s sister.
Park does a great job of writing about the contrast between Flushing’s Korean community and that of Seoul. She was awarded a Fulbright to travel to Korea for research for the book and she used that time well.
In Seoul, Jane observes something “different about the Seoul girls’ polish” that is “hyperfeminine, like the rhinestones that sparkled from their collars and cuffs”. And, “The girls spoke in a kind of Korean I had never heard before: young, female, modern”. Jane finds power in simple pleasures, and the journey to self-acceptance begins at the counter at a department store where her aunt Emo takes her for a makeover. Underneath “impenetrable foundation” and lips painted “an unnatural shade of pink” Jane gazes at herself,
I don’t know what I would have thought just one day ago if the same face were staring back at me. But I was so far from New York and everyone now. As I stared, familiarizing myself with this new face, I let the praise from Emo and the saleswoman wash over me.
Ultimately the book’s strength comes from its plot’s divergence from parallels to Bronte’s classic. The 20th century was one of radical change for women, after all. Feminist thought and practice set in motion some of the deepest and most radical of the many transformations that took place in the last century. To say this book is a feminist treatise in any way overstates the case, but it is a story of a young woman who grows confident in her own choices. And that confidence leads her to more fully realized bonds with the people that surround her, especially the women in her life.