Blurb & Info
“Even as a girl, I knew the only chance I had was to change my face… even before a fortune-teller told me so.”
Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.
Her 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 super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.
Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.
And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.
Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.
Published: April 21 2020
US Publisher: Ballantine Books (imprint of Random House)
Content Warnings: plastic surgery, misogyny, sex work, child abuse, cheating in a relationship, alcoholism, aftermath of a suicide, physical violence, police encounters
I’ve had a habit of turning up my nose at literary fiction for a long time; I’ve made no attempt to hide my preference for genre fiction, where happy endings are all but guaranteed. It’s always seemed to me that “literary” fiction just means people being miserable and then those same people never finding a way out of that misery. Some might argue that that is more true to real life, and I would then remember that Ursula K. LeGuin quote about the treason of artists being their refusal to admit “the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
But I think I get the attraction now, or at least have a better understanding of it.
If I Had Your Face is, somehow, a debut novel. It’s an #ownvoices narrative, since Frances Cha is a Korean-American who “divides her time between Seoul and Brooklyn” (according to her website) and has worked as an editor for CNN International in Seoul and Hong Kong. On top of that, she has an MFA in creative writing, which really shines through; of the debut novels I’ve read so far, I have yet to find one as polished and perfect as this. The prose is incredibly strong and straightforward, and the voice of each woman (the book jumps switches between the POVs of Wonna, Kyuri, Ara, and Miho, and each is in the first person) is easily distinguishable from the others.
This is very much a feminist book. All of the primary characters are women, and the men in their lives (husbands, boyfriends, fathers) are peripheral at best. The women are shaped by their complex relationships with other women — Wonna with her abusive grandmother, Miho with the now-deceased Ruby, Ara with Sujin, her devoted friend and roommate — and also by their evolving relationships with each other, whom they begin to help and open up to. All of these female characters felt incredibly fleshed-out and real to me, and I loved to see how they began to change over time due to their interactions with each other.
That said, this is also an incredibly dark book. Heed the content warnings! Kyuri drinks to cope with the stress of her job, in spite of how she fears that excessive alcohol consumption is causing her heavily plasticized body to shut down. Ara lost her voice in a traumatic accident, and later inflicts trauma on a belligerent coworker through physical force. Demonstrations of violence are sharp, swift, and unflinching, like Kyuri’s recollection of a girl at her room salon needing fifty stitches after the madame smashed a glass bottle against the girl’s head as punishment for embarrassing a client.
Though Kyuri was (and to a nebulous extent still is) a sex worker, If I Had Your Face doesn’t revel in revealing the details of her past or present life — I actually found the book’s treatment of sex workers to be very respectful; sex work isn’t treated as a pleasant, risk-free career choice, but women who engage in it aren’t depicted as victims or stripped of their agency.
However, none of the little plots that are developing ever really come to fruition. This novel is less than 300 pages, and it doesn’t truly end — it just stops on a soft cliffhanger and leaves you wondering what will happen next in these characters’ lives. And you will wonder, because by that time, Cha has gotten you hooked on these complex characters who grow and change both beautifully and tragically.
Literary fiction is more than just people being miserable. Though Wonna, Ara, Kyuri, and Miho have yet to solve all of their problems and receive a “happily after after” by the end of the book, If I Had Your Face does end on a hopeful note. I can’t say I’m a fan of the genre at this point, and I seriously doubt I’ll come to prefer it over genre fiction, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this book, and I won’t hesitate in picking up whatever Frances Cha writes next.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of 5 stars