If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Published by Riverhead
Publication date: April 21, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Literary
I would live your life so much better than you if I had your face.
Last week, I visited historical Korea when I read Pachinko. I learned so much about the country, but once again, fiction is taking me into an aspect of Korea I had no idea existed. I know about the South Korean beauty business. It’s highly innovative with yummy products. What I didn’t know is the cultural mindset of beauty as the only arbiter of a woman’s worth and that even in contemporary Korea a good marriage and children is the only way to be a credit to your family. I think of South Korea as a progressive hotbed of technology and naively believed women must be a part of that movement, but if Frances Cha’s novel If I Had Your Face is remotely accurate then women there are often still pigeonholed into roles defined by men.
Four young women live in tiny apartments on the upper floors of an office building in Seoul. Each is trying to secure her future in any way she can. Kiyuri is stunningly beautiful, so much so that she works in a 10% room salon—a private drinking club where small groups of men are catered to by women so exclusive that only 10% of women who apply are beautiful enough to work there. Her nights are spent trying to get men to spend as much money as possible and to find a wealthy patron for herself. Miho is an artist, the only woman in the novel who isn’t obsessed with her looks. She’s an artist, dating the son of an uber-rich family. She wants professional success, but knows a husband with money will help. Sujin works in a nail salon, but dreams of working in a room salon. To get there she uses all her savings and undergoes plastic surgery to have her jawline shaved and to get the much-desired double eyelids. Her roommate is Ara, a mute girl. She works as a hair stylist 12 hours a day six days a week.
This is just the surface of these young women’s lives. If I Had Your Face quickly pulls off the glittering mask of Korea’s fixation on beauty to show the ugly that lies beneath it. Kyuri is gorgeous, but only after multiple rounds of surgery and a continuous expensive regimen of high-end skincare products—all of which creates more debt she has to pay to her boss. Sujin needs more extensive work that takes even longer to heal and Ara, although she has a steady job, spends all her money on her boy band obsession. Each of the women is held hostage to beauty—either paying for it and hoping others will pay them or trying to get clients to spend more and more on their own looks.
If I Had Your Face turned out to be a case of misplaced expectations, but in a good way. I was expecting a dishy, eye-opening (no pun intended), look at the Korean beauty industry. Instead, it was a dark character study of four young women struggling to achieve stability in a society that has reduced them to their looks, ability to marry well and produce heirs. They live with Cinderella fantasies of being rescued by men, no matter how unrealistic it is. That the heir to a fortune will marry a room salon girl. That the lead singer of a famous group will fall in love with a hair stylist. It gives the novel a melancholy air as each of their dreams fade in the face of reality. What is left is four real women finding themselves after scrubbing the artifice from their lives.
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