In this modern retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, half-Korean, half-American orphan Jane Re is trying to figure out where she belongs. Trying to get away from Flushing, Queens where she has lived almost her whole life and now works in her uncle’s supermarket, she takes a nanny job for two professors, Beth Mazer and Ed Farley in Brooklyn. Here she is confronted not only with nine-year-old Devon but also her own identity, feminism and love. But a family crisis takes her back to Seoul and into her own past. Trying to belong to two worlds, never feeling home in either Jane Re has to come to terms with her heritage and take responsibility for her own future.
It felt a bit of an odd choice to have the “mad woman in the attic” be a feminist in this retelling. This could however have been a very conscious choice, as some of the women who have a strong feminist point of view are sometimes seen as “crazy”. To me Park was not only making a strong comment on “madness” in Jane Eyre but also on the treatment of women (in media) today.
Another interesting aspect was what exactly made Jane not fit in. Jane Eyre was much poorer than Rochester and yes, Jane Re is also not wealthy. But her lack of financial means is not her most pressing issue. She primarily lacks knowledge and self-perception. When Beth Fowler educates her in nineteenth-century novels and feminism, Jane is also ultimately given the tools, to change her own situation.
What I especially liked was the depiction of the Korean enclave in New York. Park made it come to life through lots of little details, both in her choice of words (a lot of Korean terms are important touchstones for the characters) and in her very detailed description of this part of the city. It served as a very embellished backdrop for this Korean American retelling of Jane Eyre. The issues that Jane Re faces in both countries highlights the emotions that can come with being an immigrant:
“Growing up, I often felt I would’ve been treated better if I were a hundred percent one or the other. If I were all Korean, I could have just blended in. If I were all white, I wouldn’t have been met with the same curious stares—What are you?—the same assumptions about my mother’s past. To be almost seemed to be worse than being not at all.”
It is exactly this 21st century melting pot identity that gives Jane Re it’s urgency. Where Jane Eyre was battling classes and religious morale, Jane Re is fighting racism and obligation.
I think I enjoyed this novel and it’s thoughts on identity, culture, class and gender but sometimes I felt that Jane was a bit too focused on men. A lot of times she was extremely submissive in her relationships. And even though this was probably necessary for the character arch it still made me cringe sometimes.