Frances Cha’s debut novel, “If I Had Your Face,” is set in contemporary South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world, where an estimated 1 in 3 women will elect to have a procedure before the age of 30. In addition to examining the country’s impossibly high beauty standards and obsession with appearances, the novel takes aim at other societal constructs that are difficult to overcome, such as class, patriarchy and inequality.
Cha’s novel revolves around four young women who live in the same apartment building. There’s Kyuri, whose many surgeries have earned her a job at a room salon, a popular type of bar where men pay to drink with beautiful women. Her roommate, Miho, is an up-and-coming artist who once studied in New York and has a wealthy Korean boyfriend. Across the hall is another pair of roommates — Ara, a mute hair stylist traumatized by a mysterious event from her past, and Sujin, who dreams of working alongside Kyuri in a “10 percent” room salon, which “supposedly employs the prettiest 10 percent of girls in the industry — where the madam isn’t blatantly pushing us to have sex with clients.”
With one notable exception, the men who populate this novel are not depicted as friends, much less allies. They lie, cheat, abuse, drink to excess, and/or view the women around them as objects. In general, the wealthier the man, the more arrogant and entitled his behavior. Kyuri’s regular room salon client, Bruce, showers her with expensive designer purses when he’s not treating her with aggression or disdain, while Miho’s boyfriend, Hanbin, engages in an inappropriate relationship with a mutual acquaintance. Both men are members of the uber-rich elite who will eventually marry women from the same types of families they were born into.
Similar to Bong Joon Ho’s Academy Award-winning film “Parasite,” Cha’s book deftly renders a society in which upward mobility is extraordinarily difficult, and what passes as advancement for poor women is often soul crushing. Sujin, for example, finally gets the surgeries she always wanted, resulting in a long and painful recovery. Unfortunately, the allure of making a higher salary at a room salon is short-lived as the former manicurist sees what she actually “ascended” to. Miho, who once rubbed elbows in New York with “rich [Korean] kids who studied in America for high school and college,” finds these social strata much more difficult to cross now that she’s back in Seoul. Her boyfriend’s status-conscious mother actively avoids her, and on the rare occasions when they interact, she condescends to Miho, telling her: “It’s just so wonderful how there are so many opportunities for people like you, isn’t it? Our country has become such an encouraging place.”
The cruel irony of these statements is that prosperity and success are tauntingly visible in South Korean society, and yet still so unattainable for those who lack that magic, moneyed combination of connections, education and/or beauty. On a trip back home, Ara surveys the construction of shiny new high-rises lining the highway as she leaves the urban sprawl of Seoul. “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. In a way, I will be glad when we are almost home and the scenery will turn into rice fields and farm plots, and I will be reminded of how far I have come, instead of what I cannot reach.”
Cha’s background as a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul serves her well as she vibrantly brings the city and country to life. And her excellent depiction of how difficult it is for young South Koreans to get ahead will probably resonate with American millennials and members of Gen-Z for whom homeownership, professional advancement, and a debt-free adulthood seems elusive, especially now. There are, however, a few instances when the novel attempts to incorporate one too many familiar Korean headlines (K-pop obsession, the country’s low birthrate); and some plotlines feel a bit underwhelming once finally realized.
Thankfully, these are minor exceptions in an otherwise powerful and provocative rendering of contemporary South Korean society, one that might be considered bleak if not for the women themselves, who occasionally surprise with their compassion and bravery. At heart, “If I Had Your Face” is a novel about female strength, spirit, resilience — and the solace that friendship can sometimes provide.
Jung Yun, the author of the novel “Shelter,” is an assistant professor of English at George Washington University.
IF I HAD YOUR FACE
By Frances Cha
Ballantine. 288 pp. $27