I was lucky to get my hands on the early digital copy of Frances Cha “If I Had Your Face” in June thanks to Penguin Random House UK. It was the peak of quarantine and book publishers weren’t sending paper copies out for reviewing. It was also my first experience of using online platform NetGalley, but it didn’t make the reading of the book any less riveting – if anything, it gripped me more and more with every turn of the digital page.
Written by former travel and culture reporter for CNN in Seul, the book is the first published novel for Frances Cha. Having grown up between the US, Hong Kong and South Korea, Frances studied writing at Columbia University, lectured at various Universities, including her Alma Mater and wrote articles for multiple publications. Her novel “If I Had Your Face” lifts a lid on what’s it like to be a modern young woman in contemporary Seoul. With extreme plastic surgery part of the regular and complex beauty routine from a young age; major K-Pop star adulation leading to unhealthy obsessions and work in ‘exclusive room salons”, entertaining groups of wealthy men all examined with a magnifying mirror, Frances leaves no doubt about complexities of being a young woman in South Korea.
Following the lives of three friends ( “No matter what her wrongful assumptions are, she is, at least, a friend who cares, and I know how rare that is” ) and a slightly older female neighbour, each chapter offers intrigue and heartbreak in equal measure. Painful past mergers with increasing gaps between the generations, as well as wealth disparities. What drives those young women, what constitutes ‘a good life’ to them and how far will each one of them go to realise her ambitions? Four women – Ara, Kyuri, Miho and Wonna, each as unlikable, as she is intriguing. The excessive debauchery of the very rich and socially superior hierarchies intertwined tightly with the revelation of the inner shame of poor background. And the strong desire to keep on grabbing as much as one could to prevent the lives of young upstarts becoming absolutely unbearable – as “for all of its millions of people, Korea is the size of a fishbowl and someone is always looking down on someone else”.
“I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to say. You have so much and you can do anything you want. I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.”Frances Cha, author of ” If I Had Your Face”
Each woman faces difficult choices. Kyuri, strikingly beautiful and adored by her male clients at the exclusive ‘room salon’, she is also deeply in debt to the salon Madam and feeling emotional about the decision of one of her clients. Miho, an orphan and a talented artist, has a hard-won art scholarship & is singled out by young members of the elite society – but is there a happy ever after? Ara, a mute hairstylist, obsessed with a member of the famous K-Pop band and desperate to meet him in person. Last, but not least, there is Wonna, pregnant after suffering multiple miscarriages, but not sure if she can afford to have a baby with her husband without losing her job.
“If you’re not the one spending the money or being sucked up to, you need to shut up and be wallpaper.”Frances Cha, “If I Had Your Face”
Reading this book will help you understand better the philosophy of modern South Korean women, as well as the codes of society. It will also make you question how different ( or not ) the values of modern Western society are compared to Asian one are….
“IF I HAD YOUR FACE” by Frances Cha is published on July 23, 2020 in the UK. £12.99, 288pp. Look out for signed copies at some of the Waterstones branches