RE JANE, by Patricia Park. Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 342 pp., $27.95.
In her delightful debut novel, Patricia Park uses the classic novel "Jane Eyre" as a template to examine very modern concepts: questions of identity and love, culture and conscience, even the hardships of immigration. But you don't really need familiarity with Charlotte Bronte's most famous work to appreciate "Re Jane"; it's entertaining all on its own, vibrant and witty and a hell of a lot of fun.
Of course, comparing the original Jane's journey from orphan to governess to grown woman of conviction and means to the contemporary Jane's story adds another level of enjoyment. Jane Re -- a half-Korean, half-American orphan living with her Uncle Sang and his family in Flushing, Queens -- is a college graduate who hasn't been quite able to get her career off the ground. Until she can find a better job, she works at her Korean uncle's store, helping grouchy customers and bearing up under the cultural and familial weight of nunchi as best she can. (Her best friend, Eunice, describes nunchi as "the Eye of Sauron: an all-knowing stink eye that monitored your every social misstep. Other times she said it was like the Force, a way of bending the world to your will.")
Then Eunice finds an ad for a job that will at least get Jane out of her uncle's house, where family tensions are running high. The Mazer-Farleys, Ed and Beth of Brooklyn, are looking for a live-in au pair for their adopted Chinese daughter. Jane has her doubts: She isn't happy about the location -- "The whole point was not to trade one outer borough for the other but upgrade to the city" -- and the move will put her no closer to the financial world she wants to be part of, but escape is escape, and she accepts the position.
Reader, you know what happens next: Jane finds herself drawn to the married Ed Farley, whose wife is not a madwoman in the attic but a vegan feminist academic in the upstairs office. Park has fun at Beth Mazer-Farley's expense, just as she also paints a broad comic portrait of Jane's Uncle Sang, but she never loses sight of these characters as human. When eventually Jane begins to see them in a different light as well, you know she's firmly on the road to adulthood.
The story eventually takes Jane from Brooklyn to Seoul, where she gradually unearths secrets about the mother she never knew. Park never feels compelled to stay exactly true to the original text, which allows her the freedom to find her own version of a happy ending. When Jane says, "I've begun to feel a comfort in its clumsy rocking," she's talking about the 7 train to Flushing, but she could just as easily have been talking about life itself.