Patricia Park’s debut novel Re Jane is promoted as a contemporary, Korean-American retelling of Jane Eyre, and I think that’s a disservice. Park certainly does a great job in updating Bronte’s classic story — protagonist Jane Re is an orphan who works at her uncle’s grocery store. Park’s version of Mr. Rochester is a brooding English professor who hires Jane to care for his daughter, and his wife, while thankfully not locked away in an attic, exhibits a very contemporary type of madness as a hyper-intellectual Type A control freak. As per Bronte’s novel, Jane falls in love with her employer, and then runs away, only to eventually return.
However, where Park’s novel really shines is where she deviates from Bronte’s original and explores Jane’s struggles with her Korean-American heritage. I love Park’s depiction of the America Jane grew up in, “all Korean, all the time,” where nunchi dictates adherence to traditional Korean values even when they sometimes conflict with more liberal American attitudes. I love how Park presents Jane’s desire to escape, to experience something beyond her family’s neighbourhood, and I especially love that this escape eventually leads Jane to travel all the way back to Korea.
The chapters in Korea were among the strongest in the book for me, because they highlighted just how much Jane can belong to two cultures and still not fully belong to either. Just as she feels out of place in New York, she also doesn’t quite fit in with Korea, and Park does such a great job in illustrating her heroine’s yearning for home and corresponding fear that she may never find it.
This may also have been a struggle Bronte’s Jane Eyre faced, but by contextualizing it within a Korean-American caught between two cultures, Park has made the story fresh and much more resonant to a contemporary audience.
Thank you to the publisher for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.