Originally published: 23 July 2020
Author: Frances Cha
Published by: Viking
Length: 288 pages
Reading dates: 9-11 July 2020
If I Had Your Face is set in contemporary Seoul, a place where plastic surgery is as routine as getting a haircut, where women compete for spots in “room salons” to entertain wealthy businessmen after hours as high class escorts, where K-pop stars are the object of all-consuming obsession, and ruthless social hierarchies dictate your every move.
The book follows 4 young women who all live in the same building of studio apartments as they live their lives, almost in a battle for survival.
Kyuri is a beautiful women who works in one of the exclusive room-salons, a place where men go to be entertained and drink with beautiful women. She has had copious plastic surgery and judges other women very much on their appearance. When she makes a mistake with one of her clients, her position in the room salon is very much in jeopardy.
Miho is her flatmate, an orphan from Cheongju who was lucky enough to get a scholarship to an exclusive New York art school where she became involved in the lives of the super wealthy Korean elite. Now back in South Korea, with a rich Korean boyfriend, she shares her apartment with Kyuri. She is much less concerned with her looks than most women and only cares for her art projects.
Ara is a hair stylist who lives down the hall. She is mute after a traumatic event when she was younger and the other women look out for her but she is tough and doesn’t let people bully her. She is in demand at the salon where she works and has an infatuation with a fresh faced K-pop star, fantasising about meeting him.
Wonna, their neighbour is pregnant and after several miscarriages is scared of what will happen. She has no idea how she and her husband will be able to afford and raise a child. She works in an office where she is scared of asking her bitter, unmarried, workaholic boss for the maternity leave.
As well as these 4 women, we also meet Sujin, the childhood friend of Ara who lived in the same orphanage as Miho. She is desperate to get a good position in a room salon and to be beautiful – she persuades Kyuri to get her a consultation with a plastic surgeon to have her jaw shaved, in the quest to make her beautiful.
I really enjoyed this book! Just a small snapshot into the lives of these women, it was absolutely fascinating to read about the cultural aspects of South Korea, of which I knew very little. It is shocking the lengths the women feel they need to go to in order to be beautiful. Plastic surgery is not cheap, but many women seem to thing is it a necessity and often end up in crippling debt to pay for it.
The room salons were also really interesting to me. It is interesting how women strive to work there because the pay is good. But they also mount up debt for the smallest of things and they end up being trapped there, never being able to leave.
Each woman had her own distinctive voice and I genuinely enjoyed reading each of their stories. A study of a society in which these women will never have to stop fighting, it is a fascinating female centred story and I think it would make a brilliant film.
Many thanks to Hannah at Penguin for the finished copy (which is stunning) and for inviting me on the blog tour.
About the author
Frances Cha grew up in the United States, Hong Kong and South Korea, and graduated from Dartmouth College with a BA in English Literature and Asian Studies. For her MFA in creative writing she attended Columbia University, where she received a Dean’s Fellowship.
She worked as the assistant managing editor of Samsung Economic Research Institute’s business journal in Seoul and as a travel and culture editor for CNN International in Seoul and Hong Kong. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, V Magazine, WWD and The Believer among other publications. Most recently, her short story “As Long As I Live” was published in the Korean-language anthology New York Story (Artizan Books, Korea).
She has taught Media Studies at Ewha Womens University, creative writing at Columbia University and Yonsei University and lectured at Seoul National University.
She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters and spends summer in Seoul, Korea.