BG 2 - OCTOBER 2022 Review
If I had your Face by Frances Cha - Book Review
South Korea is often referred to as the ‘plastic surgery capital of the world,’ where it’s not only typical but expected for young women to have double eyelid surgery before they hit 30. 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. Frances Cha hides nothing in her novel. The book 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. In a culture that at times is brutally competitive and unapologetically consumerist, simply surviving as an ordinary woman can seem like a feat.
Kyuri, described as “painfully plastic,” is a room salon girl. An occupation ironically condemned by the rich and elite men who make up most of the clientele. Room salons is where obscenely wealthy and debauched men treat their favorite escorts to designer handbags and accessories. Crippled by unpayable debts, Kyuri is tethered to what she owes to her madam.
Kyuri shares an apartment with Miho, an orphaned artist who, after winning a scholarship to live in New York City, Returns to Korea after college and finds herself in a precarious relationship with the heir to one of the country’s biggest conglomerates. Cha describes the opulence that surrounds them.
Ara is a mute hairdresser with a history of violence who lives down the hall. A victim of consumerism, she is subjected to working alongside cruel co-workers. Ara copes daily with the 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. Relegated to an object of laughter and pity, Ara re-experiences the trauma of her past.
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 and lives tell a gripping story, unfamiliar and unmistakably universal, in which their tentative friendships may turn out to be the thing that ultimately saves them. Prosperity and success may seem, at first glance, a ray of hope in dazzling Seoul. 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 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?
Our book group rated the book 7/10