There are two ways to look at this book -- as a retelling of Jane Eyre and as a novel on its own terms. It's clearly indebted to Jane Eyre -- frequently, the allusions are subtle; sometimes, she might as well be jumping up and down waving a flag. Still, Park's her own writer -- this is its own story, with its own characters -- and a heroine who's not just Brontë's best-known character thinly disguised.
If you haven't read <b>Jane Eyre</b>, first of all -- shame on you. Secondly, yes, you can read this and appreciate it -- you'll just miss some of Park's cleverness. Instead, what you'll get is a straight-forward story about the trials and travails (and travels) of a young Korean-American woman.
Jane Re's a half-Korean college graduate who becomes a nanny for the daughter of a couple of silly (white) New Yorkers -- she's a stereotypical college professor in Women's Studies, he's a henpecked high-school English teacher. Their daughter was adopted from China, and is now old enough that she doesn't need a nanny -- which makes the whole thing a greater challenge. Still, it's better than the alternative -- returning to live with her uncle and aunt, who were forced to take her in after the death of her mother in Korea (and her family there being unwilling to keep her).
Then through a series of events you can read about yourself, she finds herself living for a bit in South Korea. This is as fascinating as you'd think it'd be. It's not just about a young South Korean woman, it's about a young half-South Korean woman, raised in the States (by people who left Korea decades before), trying to acclimate to Korea. A stranger in the U.S. to many because of culture and appearance, finds herself a greater stranger there for the same reasons.
Which leads to . . . spoiler stuff. Which is even more interesting. Along the way there's a whole mess of family issues, stranger-in-a-strange-land issues, self-acceptance issues, romance issues, and other things I can't pair with the word "issues." Jane goes through a lot, I've got to say -- maybe a wider-range of challenges than Eyre. I frequently found myself wanting a bit more spunk, a bit more chutzpah from Jane throughout. But, like her namesake, when she needed it, she found it within -- and it was great to see.
Park makes a pivotal choice in her selection of chronological setting -- and one that worried me. It'd have been so easy to go wrong with this, and I'm used to seeing it go badly -- but Park pulls it off, and actually makes it work for her.
In the end, I liked Jane. I rooted for her. I liked (some of) her family and friends. I was invested in the story. It's not going to go down as good as, or as important as, its inspiration -- but it's a well-written, warm, look at a woman learning how to take charge of her life.