Patricia Park’s Re Jane—a contemporary Korean American retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre–had been collecting dust on my virtual “To Be Read” shelf for quite some time. Something always stopped me from reading it. The source of that reluctance is difficult to describe, except to say that it stems from my ambivalence about modern adaptations of classic novels. That ambivalence is hard to defend considering that (1) I am the author of a modern “courtroom drama” retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and (2) I’ve certainly enjoyed several adaptations in the past.
However, almost all of my favorite adaptations are based on Jane Austen novels, which are challenging to adapt to modern times but perhaps not quite as challenging as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
So, Re Jane sat on my TBR list until I finally got the nudge I needed to read it from Jenna, who hosted a “Take Back Your Shelves” Readathon last weekend (#TBYSreadathon).
I finished the book, and the verdict is… well, I’m still sorting through how I feel about it.
Park’s novel has confirmed how challenging it is to modernize a beloved classic (and I certainly don’t presume that I succeeded in doing it myself!). Modern authors who want to adapt a classic novel have the daunting task of having to decide what to keep from the classic and what to add to it.
Almost a year before I’d ever contemplated attempting to update a classic myself, I read Margot Livesey’s adaption of Jane Eyre, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which made me think carefully about the merits of modern adaptations. In “Covering” The Classics: An Homage or a Rip-Off, I wrote:
I left this novel [The Flight of Gemma Hardy] feeling very ambivalent about the merits of adaptations like this one. Part of the writing process is building a story from scratch, scene by scene, and it feels like cheating when a writer simply borrows a blueprint for a story that someone else developed 150 years ago.
Ideally, the modern author brings something new to the novel that justifies the reader’s time and money. With my update to Persuasion, I tried to remain true to the romantic elements of Jane Austen’s original novel while fleshing out the loss of the sensible matriarch. In my modern version, her death not only leaves three daughters with their “conceited, silly” father but also results in a lawsuit that is unlike anything Jane Austen would have known in her time.
With Re Jane, Patricia Park’s added elements are the best parts. What is wonderful about the book is its portrayal of bi-racial identity, of being “Asian-ish,” of not quite belonging anywhere. These are feelings I can identify with as a multi-racial person of predominantly South Asian and Irish American ancestry.
What didn’t quite work for me were the parallels to Jane Eyre, a Victorian novel that presents adapters with quite a few obstacles, including:
- How to translate the Rochester-Jane relationship to a modern time that has quite a different sense of employer-employee sexual harassment. Is Rochester a predator or a flawed but sympathetic character?
- How to present the reason Rochester cannot marry (or in modern parlance, “get with”) Jane when divorce law is quite different now; and
- How to address what’s “wrong” with the modern version of Rochester’s wife (if she exists in the modern story) when what Charlotte Bronte described in the original would be insensitive and cruel today.
One of the problematic parallels in Re Jane is Park’s portrayal of the wife, known as Beth Mazer. Jane Re interacts with her from the very beginning, though her original counterpart has no idea that her employer is married. While Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason is locked away in the attic because of her mental illness–something that does not translate well to modern times–Beth Mazer’s “insanity” is simply that she’s a controlling feminist stereotype with hairy armpits. Ugh.
If I could’ve excised Jane Eyre from Re Jane, I would’ve loved the book. The parts centered around Jane Re’s Korean American community, her trip to Korea, and her bi-racial identity are certainly worth reading.