TLDR: This story begins from the basis of appearance — and the specific culture around it in South Korea — to explore how women’s social status, finances, relationships and whole lives can unfold. An unrelenting story that still manages to delve into the small, intimate details of everyday life, this is the kind of book that grips you and doesn’t let go.
Book: If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Synopsis: The mesmerising world of contemporary Seoul. Navigating this cut-throat city are four young women balancing on the razor-edge of survival: Kyuri, an exquisitely beautiful woman whose hard-won status at an exclusive ‘room salon’ is threatened by an impulsive mistake with a client; her flatmate Miho, an orphan who wins a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York, where her life becomes tragically enmeshed with the super-wealthy offspring of the Korean elite; Wonna, their neighbour, pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they will afford to raise in a fiercely competitive economy; and Ara, a hair stylist living down the hall, whose infatuation with a fresh-faced K-Pop star drives her to violent extremes.
(Reading time: 1~ min)
This debut novel by author Frances Cha sounds very interesting from the offset. South Korea’s global cultural impact only continues to grow, and a large part of that is, obviously, affecting beauty standards. South Korea is known as the ‘plastic surgery capital of the world’ after all. But the reason this book is so enjoyable is because Cha uses this fascination with faces to study society as a whole.
The story follows five different young women: Ara, an idol-obsessed hairdresser who is mute; Kyuri, who works in a ‘room salon’ and is relentlessly concerned with looking as attractive as possible; Wonna, who lives with her husband in the apartment below all of the girls; Miho, an artist involved with a rich boy from one of the country’s most prominent families, and Sujin. Sujin is Ara’s roommate, desperate to get cosmetic surgery tips from Kyuri, and knows Miho, too, from their childhood in an orphanage. Interestingly, Sujin is the only of these women who does not have a POV. Her story is told from the others, and not often in her own words. I find her fascinating, maybe because when we do get an idea of who she is, it is in trickles that nonetheless conveys her absolute understanding of the world in which all of them live, alongside a kind of responsibility she has taken to keep it idealistic for the others.
I won’t get too much into each character, because discovering them is the fun of the book. Their lives are interlinked, past and present, and I enjoy the fact that they are all different, yet similar enough for shared experiences. For example, Miho gained a prestigious scholarship to study in the US, but she is still from an orphanage. Kyuri works in a ‘ten-percent’ room salon (a sort of lounge where men go to order food and be served drinks by pretty girls), but she is still, like all other room salon girls, in debt. Ara is quiet and kind and disconnected — but absolutely obsessed with a K-Pop singer. Their lives are multilayered and rich, but the skill of the author here is representing that richness without it being a trite or shallow look at lower-class women in a capital city.
For example, this quote: “In a way, I will be glad when we are almost home and the scenery will turn into rice fields and farm plots, and I will be reminded of how far I have come, instead of what I cannot reach.” This is from Ara’s POV, and it is such a concise way of explaining the idea of home. Sometimes going home is a reminder like: this is what you came from. You have already done so much. You forget, when other people grow so tall, that they may not have started from the ground. This quote exemplifies the sneaky social commentary that exists throughout this book, peppered in here and there. Such as: “Do these unemployment numbers include all the people who own buildings and don’t go to work? Every single skyscraper and shopping mall in this city has owners who live at hotel gyms and department stories and never worked a day in their lives.” This is from Kyuri’s POV. Although she is employed, her job is precarious. This fragility is explore more in Wonna’s narration. She has been haunted by money and freedom all her life.
There is a very lyrical quality to Cha’s writing. She can focus on both the big picture and the small details at the same time, simultaneously giving you an overview and an intense focus. It’s very compelling writing! I am excited to see what she writes next — whether more stories that get into the heart of a contemporary Korean culture, or something else.