BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES — South Korea, often referred to as the ‘plastic surgery capital of the world,’ is a place where it’s not only typical but expected for young women to have double eyelid surgery before they hit thirty. Jaw slimming, skin lasering, destructive dieting – these radical approaches to achieving the beauty standard are often the last resort for Korean women who want to be recognized in any way in today’s job market. Author Frances Cha hides nothing in her boldly honest novel, If I Had Your Face (2020). Cha’s tale, deserving of international recognition, follows the stories of four women living in the same officetel, battling the impossibly restrictive and often lonely confines made for women in Korean society.
Frances Cha makes her shining literary debut with If I Had Your Face. Young, brilliant, and a travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, Cha is perhaps the perfect person to write about women’s struggles in Korean society. In a culture that at times is brutally competitive and unapologetically consumerist, simply surviving as an ordinary woman can seem like an implausible feat.
Kyuri, described as “painfully plastic,” is a room salon girl. A grim occupation ironically condemned by the very people (rich and elite men) who make up most of the clientele. Room salon positions are only available to the “prettiest 10%,” where obscenely wealthy and debauched men treat their favorite escorts to designer handbags and accessories. In truth, many of the girls are crippled by unpayable debts. Kyuri is tethered to what she owes to her madam and feels her flesh slowly breaking down by the nightly binge drinking she is forced to partake in.
Kyuri shares an apartment with Miho, an orphaned artist who, after winning a scholarship to live in New York City, became deeply involved with the hyper-wealthy. Cha describes the opulence that surrounds them in a dazzling but horrific way. While the staggering riches mesmerize the reader, they can hardly cover up the heinousness that such a grotesque amount of money yields. Miho vowed to never manipulate or use her vibrantly wealthy connections until Hanbin, her lover, decided to be unfaithful. “I will not come out of this with nothing,” Miho assures. Baptized by her trauma, Miho promises to “become a lightning storm, a nuclear apocalypse.”
Ara is a mute hairdresser with a history of violence who lives down the hall. A victim of consumerism, she is subjected to working the daily grind alongside cruel coworkers. Ara copes daily with the haunting memories of the assault that led to her condition and her parents’ obsessive fixation on trying to marry her off. Her only escape is in her fantasies of Taein, a handsome K-pop star. That is, until she finally confronts him in a room salon private room with Kyuri, only for his manager to shout, “What’s up with the quality control! I thought this was a ten percent! Not a house of amateurs and freaks!” Relegated to an object of laughter and pity, Ara reexperiences the trauma of her past in vivid detail. However, the “most difficult memory to bear” was not the beating itself but the pity in the eyes of those who rescued her.
Downstairs in the corner lives soon-to-be-mother Wonna, who married her husband simply because his mother was dead – a morbid yet fascinating insight into the toxic dynamic of mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law in Korea. A less-than-worthy spouse, Wonna’s husband, lies to her about being jobless while she fantasizes about her future child, who she only imagines to be a daughter.
Grappling with pregnancy in a corporation-driven business culture that frowns upon motherhood and paid pregnancy leave, Wonna consoles her worries by daydreaming about her daughter. “You are a young woman, perhaps the age of those girls who live above me – not that much younger than I am now. But unlike them and unlike me, you have a perpetual smile lurking at the corners of your mouth because you’ve had a happy childhood.” In today’s world, where women’s rights are being stripped one by one, a parent’s greatest wish is the happiness and freedom of their child.
Prosperity and success may seem, at first glance, a shining beacon of hope in South Korea’s dazzling capital. Ara, on a drive outside Seoul, remarks on the building of gorgeous new high rises lining the highway. “Hundreds, no thousands of apartments, so far away from the heart of the capital, and yet I will never be able to afford a single one, no matter how much I save all my life.” Yet, for so many, it remains an unattainable goal for those who lack the ‘magic’ that is a combination of beauty, nepotism, and the right education. Kyuri, in a moment of sullen reflection, explains that often this leads to people taking their own lives. “It’s easy to leap if you have no choice.” People would rather die than suffer the consequences of being ordinary.
A novel worth the time and thoughtful reflection it requires, we readers are left to question – what remains when beauty inevitably withers away?
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.