In If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, we find ourselves in present day Seoul and find four young women who are traversing their lives, along with impossible beauty standards and expectations on their status in society.
There’s Kyuri, a stunning woman with a difficult job at a ‘room salon’, entertaining businessmen throughout the night. Her roommate Miho has a difficult past — an orphan who worked hard to earn a scholarship to an art school in New York.
Down the hall from their apartment lives Ara, a mute hair stylist who is obsessed with a K-pop star, with a best friend who is preparing to have extreme, yet extremely common, plastic surgery.
And then there’s Wonna, living upstairs. Pregnant, newlywed and struggling to figure how to make ends meet in a brutal economy.
South Korea is reported to have the highest rate of plastic surgeries per capita worldwide. Around 30% of South Korean women have gone under the knife in an attempt to attain the beauty that is thrust upon them by society.
And yet it’s not just the beauty industry that gets a look in here. It’s the social hierarchy, the misogyny, the economy, the celebrities.
Each story is so different, yet they each intersect. If I Had Your Face provides a snapshot of life in Korea that feels at once familiar and foreign. One in which the bonds of friendship hold fast.
How pretty is this one. I much prefer the blue hardback/audiobook version to the orange paperback.
This collage-style illustration mashup feels so right for the story. Pieces of a dissected face interlacing with floral emblems create a gorgeous cover that is also quite unnerving.
Much like Daisy Jones and The Six and last year’s marvel Girl, Woman, Other this story is broken into the voices of our characters.
It’s a wonderful way to enter the lives of each incredibly different woman and understand her motivations and feelings.
Korean life jumps off the page, thanks to Cha’s background as a travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul. The writing is pithy and at times aggressive, and layered with detail.
Ahhh, this is a doozy. I loved the audiobook production, with impeccable performances that felt real to the characters.
Each section was easily identifiable and there’s no concern about getting confused between chapters, as can sometimes be the case with multi-voice books. I think having just four characters is key.
To be quite honest, I am ambivalent about the ending. As, it seems, so was Cha. It was a somewhat satisfactory but also unresolved finish, but I don’t even think the ending is what matters here.
Being exposed to these stories, as if we’re just peeking into a tiny fragment of time in their lives, is what feels right and real. I think if the storylines were wrapped up too much into neat little bows, I’d feel cheated out of that authentic vibe that Cha manages to produce so well.
For all its millions of people, Korea is the size of a fishbowl and someone is always looking down on someone else. That’s just the way it is in this country, and the reason why people ask a series of rapid-fire questions the minute they meet you. Which neighborhood do you live in? Where did you go to school? Where do you work? Do you know so-and-so? They pinpoint where you are on the national scale of status, then spit you out in a heartbeat.
Last year I was glued to my seat watching the movie Parasite. A deeply provoking and revealing story that looks at Korean culture in a way I didn’t see coming. The movie is dark, twisted, funny, shocking.
If I Had Your Face seems to fit the same genre, albeit in a way that focuses on women’s stories. It’s a fiercly written commentary about how we appear to the world. And yet it’s anything but surface-level writing.
Struggles that millenial and Gen-Z readers face will feel familiar, even if the culture doesn’t. I know what it’s like to live in a society where the idea of owning a home seems impossible, where body positivity conversations are pitted against influencer culture that glorifies plastic fantastic. It’s hard sometimes, out there. I think that’s why this story resonated so much with me.
Getting a real sense of life in Korea was a huge win for me. I was so fascinated in the nuances that Cha details so well, and enjoyed learning about all aspects that she touches on. And yet the plot isn’t this book’s strongest point. The ending is so-so. But what really grabbed me were the interesting stories, the life of Korean women, the reminder that female friendships are powerful.
This is a fun, riveting, eye-opening read.
What did the book reveal to you about Korean culture?
Whose story did you most identify with?
Beauty almost becomes its own character in this book. What do you feel is its presence in your own life?
How do the stereotypes — gender, class, appearance — compare to those in your own world?
Did you find yourself sympathising or identifying with any of the characters’ motivations?
What does the book say about our obsession with consumerism? Where could we learn from it. What could we do better at. Is there a way to break free from the shackles of it?
It’s basic human nature, this need to look down on someone to feel better about yourself.
Fable and Fizz would like to acknowledge the Whadjuck Noongar people as the traditional owners and continual custodians on the lands and waters this content is primarily written on. I pay respects to their Elders — past and present. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.