A debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossibly high standards of beauty, secret room salons catering to wealthy men, strict social hierarchies, and K-pop fan mania. “Even as a girl, I knew the only chance I had was to change my face… even before a fortune-teller told me so.” Kyuri is a beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.
Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.
Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.
And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.
Together, their stories tell a tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.
If I Had Your Face promises to allow you to dive in some of the most notorious trends that are “leaking” lately from the contemporary Korean culture into the international media: the plastic surgeries turned into a norm, the K-pop mania, the obsession with impossible beauty standards, the pressure of social hierarchies, the lack of balance between work and family life. Frances Cha manages to deliver an insight into these strict standards, showing how five young women struggle to live within all the restrictions imposed by the modern Korean society.
I was honestly expecting something a bit deeper, an explanation on how people are “digesting” all this pressure, an active reaction from the characters forced to submit to such unattainable ideals. Instead, all of the five women just… go with the flow, conforming to the cultural norms, without questioning or opposing them. I know it somehow makes sense, because… how unbearable life would be if you wouldn’t internalize the rules of the society around you? If the collective mentality wouldn’t become embedded into your core like it would be your own? But I still cannot help feeling unsatisfied by the fact that what we see is just acceptance and nothing of the process that’s shaping the personalities of the characters.
Despite this, I didn’t dislike the book. It’s mildly entertaining, like a little innocent gossip that you hear on the brunch with your girlfriends. Not bringing any depth or substance, but offering enough amusement. The book lacks on tension, even if there is a visible attempt to create some suspense here and there. But Frances Cha still manages to keep you reading without frustration. Honestly, if the author decided to write extra 500 pages about the same day-to-day casual experiences of her characters, I probably wouldn’t have minded or became bored of it.
The only problem I had with the book is that the characters’ voices are so similar. Even if every chapter has the name of each woman, I still struggled to recognize who’s story I’m reading. And this issue lasted until the very end of the novel, it was not something that faded by becoming more familiar with the particularities of each individual.