Friday, August 14, 2015

"Re Jane," by Patricia Park

In my 8/11/15 post on Katherine Taylor’s novel “Rules for Saying Goodbye,” I described a common genre of novels with young women characters starting off their adult lives and careers in New York, almost always Manhattan or possibly Brooklyn. Patricia Park’s new novel, her first, “Re Jane” (Viking, 2015) starts with that template, but immediately diverges from it by having the main character come from a far from upscale part of Queens. Her main character differs,too, from most of the ones in the novels I was describing: Jane is American, her parents a Korean woman and a white American man; they died when she was young, and she has grown up in Queens, living with her uncle and aunt and cousins. Her post-college job in finance has fallen through because of the limping economy, so she is working in her uncle’s shabby food market (named “FOOD”). She decides on a whim to take an au pair job in Brooklyn; the family there consists of a women’s studies professor, an English teacher, and their daughter, adopted from China. Various plot twists ensue, including a love affair and a trip on Jane’s part to Korea where she ends up staying with relatives and teaching English for a year. Throughout, she feels torn among various identities and various loyalties. But when she returns to New York, she is more at ease with herself, and gradually starts figuring out how to live her life. This novel gives readers an up-close look at the experiences and confusions that life as a racially, ethnically, and culturally “mixed” young person can bring. Jane is not the only one who experiences identity conflicts. The girl she takes care of, Devon, also struggles with fitting in; she is Chinese by birth and ethnicity, but is growing up in an academic white American family, and has trouble fitting in with the various ethnic cliques at her school. We also find realistic portrayals of social class differences, as well as, of course, cultural differences. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that the main character’s name “Jane” is a tribute to the novel “Jane Eyre.” There is no explicit attempt to do a modern version of Bronte’s story, but throughout the novel there are various allusions to the earlier Jane’s story. For example, in Korea Jane finds a photo of her father and herself as a baby, with the notation “Currer Bell and his daughter Jane.” (Readers may remember that “Currer Bell” was Charlotte Bronte’s writing pseudonym.) There is the lover who is at first cold with Jane and then later is intensely in love with her (Rochester, anyone?). There is Jane’s flight to Korea when it seems the love affair cannot ethically continue (like Jane Eyre’s flight from Rochester when the existence of his mad wife is revealed.) And so on. The novel would stand on its own just fine without these Jane Eyre references, but the references provide an extra layer of recognition and enjoyment.
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