I just finished Re Jane by Patricia Park, and found it a mostly pleasant, quick read. It tells the story of Jane Re, a Korean American who is raised in Flushing, Queens by her aunt and uncle. The story parallels that of Jane Eyre, but is an interesting modern adaptation. It opens with Jane working in her Uncle’s grocery store. He is abrupt, rude, and dismissive of Jane. She has recently finished college, and dreamed of a job on Wall Street, but the economic downturn has shut her out of that possibility. It’s probably worth mentioning that the book is set in and around 2001.
Jane, unable to find a Wall Street job, takes a job as an au pair for an unusual family in Brooklyn. Her ward, Devon, is an adopted Chinese girl, and the parents are an unconventional couple as well. Of course, unlike Jane Eyre, the wife, Beth, is alive and almost omnipresent in the section of the book where Jane works for the Mazer-Farleys. She’s described as a very unlikeable intellectual, pushing wheat grass shots and veganism on her reluctant family, and feminist values on Jane, the Korean American girl who has been taught to always follow nunchi, a sense of family order, heavy on respect. I thought this was actually quite interesting – watching Jane struggle to balance her traditional upbringing with contemporary life in China. Of course, counterposed to this is Beth’s relationship with her Chinese American daughter, and Beth’s overdone and strangely myopic way of trying to incorporate Devon’s cultural background into her life and upbringing.
Jane inevitably falls for Ed Farley, the husband. Unlike the real Mr Rochester, though, Ed is not a very interesting character. From the beginning he seems overshadowed by his wife, who seems oblivious to the fact that she is dominating the household in ways the other members all find constraining. But Ed seems to primarily lack personality. He does, however, provide Jane with a bit of a culinary (as well as sexual) education, and this was one of the most interesting cultural points of juxtaposition for me. Jane’s mind is blown when he makes her a fig and prosciutto hero, and again when he later makes her a cassoulet. Ed’s role in the book seems tied to this for Jane in many ways – when later in the book he is forced to try to prepare that most classic of French (and caucasian?) dishes at Jane’s 20 something apartment, which lacks what to him are basics like thyme, he fails.
But as Jane’s relationship with Ed begins to turn sexual, she panics, and flees. Her family has been called to Korea for the funeral of her grandfather. She happens to quite literally fly over the September 11 terrorist attacks, landing in Seoul, Korea the day after they happen. While I felt this was glossed over, I also was glad we weren’t forced to dwell in the New York of post 9-11 trauma. Rather, in Korea, she goes about discovering her roots, redefining her looks, and discovering that her aunt and uncle, who taught her everything they know about Korea, were out of touch with contemporary Korea. In New York she is an outsider because she is half Korean, half American. In Korea, this status makes her even more desirable as an employee, friend, and girlfriend.
In Seoul she makes friends, finds a boyfriend, and almost marries him. Here, though, the boyfriend introduces her to a kind of octopus dish where you consume live, wriggling octopus tentacles. The juxtaposition with Ed’s fig and prosciutto sandwich, and also with her aunt and uncles prosaic bowls of rice, are unmistakable. Her boyfriend, though, is also not right for her, and she soon splits with him. She has unfinished business in New York, and, armed with new information about her own past, she flies home.
I actually expected the book to end sooner than it did, but in many ways I respect it for continuing on longer. It not only introduces a relationship with Ed, it sees it through. The Jane at the end of the book is not the same Jane as the beginning, but rather, a more rounded and fully realized character. I recommend this read, especially if you are a fan of Jane Eyre.