Sulagna Misra
May 16, 2015 10:05 am

One of my favorite parts of living in New York was taking the subway from all the downtown to all the way uptown on a Saturday. As long as it’s not raining, it’s an absolute treat: You see every type of person on the trains. New York is perfect for people-watching, and being on the subway makes you feel connected to all those people. One day, when I was taking a trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I saw a seat open up on the very crowded train for a pregnant lady. Just before she was to sit down, a little boy nabbed the seat – or at least tried to. His mother grabbed him immediately, scolding him: “No way in hell, she’s pregnant!” He looked shame-faced as the pregnant lady sat down gratefully, thanking her and her son, but the car was filled with silly grins. It was such a small human moment, so sincere that we couldn’t help our smiles.

I was reminded of that when reading the novel Re Jane by Patricia Park, which came out this month. The story has the bones of Jane Eyre, but is New York to its core. There’s even a part when Jane looks at the people on the subway, examining their faces and their clothes to understand them as people – where they’re coming from in Queens, how they look at other people, how people act on a train when they’re drunk, and so on.

Re Jane is about Jane Re, a girl who grows up in the shadow of her Korean mother’s choice to have her with an American GI. She lives in Flushing, Queens with her uncle and his family, working in a grocery store while looking for financial work. She applies to be a nanny for a family filled with familiar characters, both in a New York and Jane Eyre sense: Ed Farley, Brooklyn born and bred; his wife, cultural professor and academic eccentric, Beth Mazer; and their daughter Devon, a transracial adoptee from China. Her best friend is Nina, a Brooklyn girl with a penchant for clubbing and the aggressive type of friendliness a certain subset of New Yorkers are known for. As she meets people across the city and across the world in South Korea, Jane is warm and open to all these new people. The story is set more than ten years in the past, and highlights the general feeling of the city at the turn of century – diverse, fearful yet strong, and full of community.

Jane’s story brought to mind other stories of young women in the city, especially writers in the city, like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath or the show Girls. Unlike those characters, Jane isn’t a writer in this book – she’s a sharp study when it comes to people, but she studied finance at Baruch College and other than her nannying, most of her professional life is in the background. But Jane is also looking for her place, managing and changing her own personal narrative as she figures out what’s best for her in this life.

Where Esther Greenwood dates the disappointing likes of Buddy, Irwin, and Constantin, Jane and her friends also date less than interesting men. The same way Marni and Hannah have epic fights about their divergent choices, Jane fights with her best friend Nina about what they want and need and expect from their lives. But the book Re Jane most reminded me of was the memoir ‘Tis by Frank McCourt, about his time returning to Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s after an awful childhood in Ireland. When trying to scrape by in the city, making a living as well as a life, Frank is also cannily observant of the stories of the people who surround him. He talks about the tragedies of his Swedish landlady, the kindness of the Puerto Rican cooks in the hotel where he works, the innocence (and loss thereof) of the Italian and Irish children in the school where he teaches, the African American man who he works with at the docks, who tells him to dream bigger than drinking away his pay. He speaks about them with an openness I took to heart when I read the book at — perhaps a little young — at 13. I fell in love with New York because I wanted to be part of such a huge swirl of humanity, surrounded by people who are all different but who all lived in this one city. I thought, Yes. I want to be a part of this.

As a result, I’ve always hungered for stories about New York, to hear the stories of the millions and millions of people you can find there. Law & Order lasted a gazillion seasons for a reason, but it’s wonderful to hear multiples stories in an absorbing, funny novel instead of a true crime show. And to see them treated with such affection! Jane is equally thoughtful about Beth’s strident feminism and, eventually, her uncle’s strict sensibilities, and why not? Like any young person whose trying to find their place in the world, she wants to know all the possibilities.

Re Jane by Patricia Park is very funny and the voice hooked me immediately – I read the whole thing over a lazy weekend, the first time that’s happened in a long time. But most of all, I highly recommend Re Jane because it’s a story about New York, and the stories that live there.

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