Jane Austen’s blend of wit, romance and incisive social commentary has stood the test of time; 200 years after her death, she continues to win new fans and inspire new versions of her stories. In that vein, Kim takes on the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, transforming time and place to present-day San Francisco: “It was a truth universally known that a Korean mother in possession of five unmarried daughters must desperately be in need of eligible single men.” Jihae—the smart daughter, with a degree in mechanical engineering from Berkeley—stands in for Elizabeth, and wealthy Korean businessman Donghoon, for Mr. Darcy. Updating the story among an upwardly striving immigrant community makes good sense: The setting plausibly retains the values of Austen-ian England (marriage, conformity, material success, loyalty to family, good manners) within the larger context of American individualism. Kim cleverly adapts characters and situations; for example, a walk in the country might become a tour of Cal Berkeley for business clients. But inviting comparison with a beloved novel has its dangers. In homage, Kim lifts some of her best lines straight from Austen, but the effect is to highlight what’s missing: Unlike, say, Helen Fielding and her Bridget Jones, Kim doesn’t put her own memorable stamp on the material. Though the competent, workmanlike prose has some good ideas, the narrative lacks the wit, vivacity and inventiveness that characterize Austen. Practical, down-to-earth Jihae has little in common with Lizzie’s arch lightness; after lunch with Donghoon, for example, she is described as “irritated and ready to pounce,” “snappy” and “bitchy.” The romance is weakened further because Kim gives Donghoon no chance to prove himself comparable to the Wickham-Lydia episode; instead, he merely outwaits contrived obstacles.
A Korean-American setting helps this reboot, though it fails to capture Austen’s magic touch.