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Re Jane by Patricia Park

Re JaneSummer would not be complete without the recommendation of one "light but literary" reading pick. Re Jane, by Patricia Park, is just such a book. Set in New York at the beginning of the 21st century, Re Jane is a clever spin on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Like its Victorian counterpart, this novel features an orphan of doubtful lineage--Jane Re. The offspring of an American father and a Korean mother, she is being raised by her Korean uncle and aunt in Flushing, Queens.

All her life, Jane has worked in her Uncle Sang's grocery store grocery under his strict supervision. Just as diligently, she has sought an escape out of her insular community.

After the dot-com crash, an opportunity to work in a prestigious company is rescinded. Jane's ticket out comes via an ad for a nanny. Despite the disapproval of her family for what they consider a menial job, Jane leaps at the chance to leave home and live in Brooklyn.

Initially, her new job seems ideal. Her young charge, Devin, is a friendly Chinese girl adopted by academics, Ed Farley and Beth Mazur. Ed is younger than Beth, a man whose working class roots sharply contrast with those of his wife. He is both seductive and brooding--our latter-day Rochester. Beth is a women's studies scholar, a woman who writes obtuse articles, such as "Wanting a Piece of Fanny: Male Dominance and Violation in Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park.'" She is well-meaning but humorless, prone to extreme views on organic foods and women's issues. In short, she is a parody of a liberal academic.

Nonetheless, Beth is warm and nurturing toward Jane. Their nightly, scholarly chats in her dusty, cavernous attic office (the madwoman in the attic) are both amusing and edifying. Here, Jane is exposed to a literature and culture alien to her upbringing, but ultimately, necessary to her emotional growth.

It would have been so easy to write them off, Jane reflects. Beth Mazer, with her hairy armpits and her complete lack of social grace. Ed Farley, gruff and a little cold, and probably ten years (Beth's) junior. Their daughter, Devon, a half-pint-size imitation of her mother, even though she was Chinese...I suddenly pictured myself living with them, being taken into the fold.

Over time, the midnight snacks provided by Ed (snacks of "forbidden foods") coupled with their feelings of class alienation, make for a fast friendship. He becomes the first adult to whom Jane can confide. Over the months, Ed begins to poke fun at his eccentric wife. Similarly, the reader, as does Jane, sees fissures in their relationship.

Of course, Jane is an unreliable narrator. She is a very innocent 22 year old and completely taken in by Ed's charms. Like most young adults, she cannot see beyond her strong emotions nor is she able to project the consequences of her actions. Patricia Park is adept at getting into the mind of a young woman on her own for the first time. Similarly, she candidly depicts what it feels like to be "the other" --whether that is an adolescent searching for acceptance or an immigrant grocer navigating an alien culture.

Re Jane is an engaging Bildungsroman that captures the essence of what it meant to be young and different in the shadow of 9/11. It takes a long time for Jane to understand her quarrelsome uncle and even longer for her (and the reader) to realize that he truly loves her. Like Jane, the reader comes to differentiate between the people who are truly decent from those who are not.

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