Title/Author: If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Publisher: Ballantine House
In a nutshell (Publisher):
“Absolutely stunning . . . If I Had Your Face marks the entrance of a bright new voice in fiction.”—Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Jones & The Six
Kyuri is an achingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a Seoul “room salon,” an exclusive underground bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake threatens her livelihood.
Kyuri’s roommate, 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 heir to one of the country’s biggest conglomerates.
Down the hall in their building lives Ara, a hairstylist whose two preoccupations sustain her: an obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that she hopes will change her life.
And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to have a baby that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise in Korea’s brutal economy.
Together, their stories tell a gripping tale at once unfamiliar and unmistakably universal, in which their tentative friendships may turn out to be the thing that ultimately saves them.
My verdict: A shocking and heartbreaking novel about beauty, patriarchy, sexism, class, filial piety and friendship with intricately drawn characters, making this an unforgettable debut!
“I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to stay. 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.”Kyuri,’If I Had Your Face’ by Frances Cha
In Seoul, South Korea, we meet 5 women – Kyuri, a room salon girl; Miho, an emerging artist; Ara a hairstylist, Wonna, a pregnant lady in her forties, and Sujin, Ara’s former high school friend. Miho and Sujin were raised in an orphanage in Cheongju. Each story is told from their perspective, except Sujin, whose story we’ll know from the girls, except Wonna.
This book truly surprised me. I wasn’t expecting it to have such a lasting impression on me. ‘If I Had Your Face’ is a shocking and heartbreaking novel about beauty, patriarchy, sexism, class, filial piety and friendship in a country known for its K-dramas, boyband fandoms, and fried chicken and soju, with characters so intricately drawn, you can’t help but to empathize with them and hold them dear to your heart.
Miho, adopted by her aunt and uncle at a young age, liked to think that she was unlike her friends, superficial, materialistic, obsessed with looks and men their salvation. Having obtained her scholarship, lived in New York and rubbed shoulders with the rich, she believed that her talent alone will get her far. She never thought looks should be a priority. Until one day, brokenhearted, she decided to get a makeover.
Kyuri, a well sought-after salon girl, felt being judged at all times, ‘that you probably do this (her job) to buy handbags.’ But she worked hard to pay off her debts she kept accumulating because of her surgeries because of her job (this vicious cycle never ends!), and to also send money back home to her mom. This made earned her respect from her friends. She rarely spent on herself. Despite her status at the salon, she was still always in debt, making her beholden to her clients and Madam at work.
Ara, whose parents are servants of a wealthy family back in Cheongju, had a soft spot in everyone’s heart and her friends were very protective of her. After losing her voice, she now mostly kept to herself, but that didn’t mean she had lost her violent, fearless streak. She took pride in her work, and when challenged by Cherry, her new assistant at work, things didn’t end well.
Sujin, an orphan and Ara’s high school friend, who dreamed one day to be a room salon girl, was my favorite character. Despite her insecurities about her looks, she was the most carefree and caring one of the lot. She saw herself as Ara’s ‘savior’ and protector, and helped her get her job at the beauty salon. She also helped Miho get her art scholarship, and tried to hook Kyuri with a better job. Her enthusiasm was infectious. If there were a party, I’d say she’d be the heart of it!
Wonna, married and pregnant,was struggling to survive. She tried to hide her pregnancy from her lady boss for as long as she could, to prevent her from getting laid-off. She was also struggling with her own dark past that kept haunting her.
This book took me to a place where beauty is currency, where women aren’t equals, sexism a commonplace, plastic surgeries felt like a necessity, room salons a place of business and entertainment and women aren’t allowed except the staff, and violence swept under the carpet – students being slapped and hit by their teachers and principals with no repercussions or consequences.
Yes, the story was somber in its tone, but there were also tender moments of friendship, when the three women headed back to their hometown in Cheongju to visit Ara’s family, when city landscapes turned into trees and scenic farmlands; or when Kyuri risked her job and invited the girls over to meet Taein at her workplace and when Wonna shared a 3D ultrasound printout of her baby with the three friends.
I come away from this book feeling happy for these young women. Happy that they have each other. After a day of kowtowing to others, of being judged, bullied, mistreated, disrespected, of trying to be who you are not so you can keep your job, it is comforting to know you have a group of friends you could return to, who let you to just be, who are there to lend an ear, a hand, a shoulder, a hug; to just be there. For you.
There was love and hate, envy and jealousy among these young women; they argued and fought and drove each other crazy, but beneath all that, there was friendship, that binding force that kept them together, strong, in this unforgiving, , sexist, beauty-obsessed world that is of South Korea.Tweet
An unforgettable debut!
Have you read this? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you plan to? And what do you think of extreme plastic surgeries that totally change someone’s looks? Please share with me your thoughts!
Stay safe and well, you all!