This book is a really clever riff on Jane Eyre. The Jane of the title is an orphan, living with her uncle Sang Re's family in New York City. Not in Manhattan, far from it: in Flushing, Queens, where Sang runs a grocery store called Food. The story opens in September of 2000. A recent college graduate, Jane is working at Food because the job she was supposed to start at Lowood Capital (ahem) vanished in the recent dot-com crash. Jane grew up working in the store. Born in Korea, she was sent as an infant to live with her uncle's family, after her mother's death. Because her father was an American, Jane is marked as honhyol, not pure Korean, less than. Her friend Eunice Oh, about to start her own new job out in California (working for Google), encourages Jane to break away, to escape, even if it's only over to Brooklyn. She shows Jane an advertisement for an au pair. Jane wants Manhattan and an office in the World Trade Center, not a child care job, but she lets Eunice talk her into at least calling the number listed on the ad.
This sets off a story that moves between Queens, Seoul, and Brooklyn (all equally unknown and exotic to me). Like Charlotte Brontë's character, this Jane is carrying the weight of years of disapproval. She has been told over and over again that she should be grateful, to appreciate how lucky she is. In return, she has tried so hard to conform, to show that she was raised right by behaving with nunchi ("the ability to read a situation and anticipate how you were expected to behave"). Starting with her move to Brooklyn, into the home of Ed Farley and Beth Mazer, Jane finds the space to begin asking questions, the big ones about who she is and what she wants to do. Moving beyond the Korean community of her childhood, she makes a friend, Nina Scagliano, also an au pair. (Spoiler alert: Nina does not die in an epidemic.)
I found Jane's story a really interesting and engaging one. I enjoyed watching her step into her own life (as Dorothy Canfield Fisher would put it). She makes mistakes - a couple of big ones - but she finds her way through them and forward. The section set in Seoul is particularly absorbing, as Jane reconnects with her extended family and learns more about her past. She also has to learn her way around a new culture, very different from the ex-pat Korean-American community back in Queens. Even the language is different, as she discovers. Jane's struggles with her identity, both in America and Korea, run parallel with those of the child in her care, Devon, adopted from China when she was three.
I also enjoyed the parallels between Jane Re and Jane Eyre. I'm sure that I missed some, as it's been years since I re-read the Brontë story (Helen's death haunts me). I don't want to spoil the fun of discovering them for anyone, but I have to share two that tickled me: Ed Farley gets an adjunct teaching job at the University of Rochester. And his wife Dr. Beth Mazer, a feminist literary scholar, has her office in the fourth-floor attic of their brownstone. Her work focuses on the "misunderstood and demonized [female] characters in nineteenth century novels" - the mad women, in the attics or elsewhere. Her determined efforts to educate Jane by forcing her to read books and articles cracked me up. (I would bet money that "Wanting a Piece of Fanny: Male Dominance and Violation in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park" is an actual article someone has written.) I also had to wonder if Patricia Park is a fan of "Moonstruck," since one character is named Joey Cammareri (perhaps a cousin of Johnny and Ronnie).
I first came across this in the books section of the Oprah magazine. I haven't enjoyed her book club books, but the magazine always features a diverse group of authors and titles, and I usually end up cutting something out from the section each month, to remind me to look for it. I hadn't gotten around to this one yet when I came across it in the new books bin at the library. I'm so glad I did. This is Patricia Park's first novel, and I can't wait to see what she writes next.