A Superficial World

Over the past few years, the rise of Korean Pop music, or simply KPop, has set the global music scene on fire. The eclectic music BTS, BlackPink, Monster X, NCT 127, among others, has produced made the world dancing on its feet. More recently, the success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite at the recently concluded Oscars helped place the world’s proverbial microscope and focus to the heart of this shift, South Korea, represented by its buzzing and dazzling capital Seoul.

The frenetic sounds of KPop, coupled with psychedelic colors and dazzling outfits, belie the ugly and dark realities that South Korean society has to deal with. In her debut novel, Korean-American writer Frances Cha delves into the subterranean world of Korean society. In If I Had Your Face, she weaved a story that is distinctly local but still unmistakably universal through the intersecting lives of four contemporary women living at the heart of Seoul.

The narrative opens with Ara, a young woman working at a salon in the glamorous Gangnam district. A traumatic childhood experience rendered her mute for life. Kyuri, meanwhile, works in an upscale room salon, an underground bar that entertains influential businessmen and celebrities. Kyuri’s roommate, Miho, returned from New York after graduating on an arts scholarship. Like all of the primary characters, Miho is haunted by her past. Lastly, there is the newlywed Wonna. A worrier, the future fills her with anxiety.

“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.”

~ Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face

As the lives of these four independent and strongly-willed young women intersect, the realities gripping South Korea surface. Repeatedly all throughout the narrative, the novel dwells on the most abrasive facets of contemporary Korean culture – young women’s obsession with face surgery and the society’s unrealistic beauty standards. The center of the narrative explores the different definitions of beauty and how these standards have helped erode and shape the values of women throughout the years.

The premium placed on beauty by the society has led to about a third of the country’s women undergoing the knife before they turned 30. Believing that double eyelids are the ultimate symbol of beauty, eyelid surgery, together with jaw slimming, are the most popular procedures. Society’s grooming has created a huge psychological impact; improving one’s physique is not merely for vanity but a generally accepted way of surging ahead of the highly competitive job market. On one of the many scenes, Kyuri was muttering “I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.” This has also led to many young women becoming self-deprecating and self-effacing.

Frances Cha’s debut work also vividly takes the readers to the subterranean world of Seoul. The activities in room salons, the stylized barrooms, were explored as though their presence were normal, general. It was also through its buzzing activities that one characteristic of Korea society is explores – its sexism. In one room salon scene, a male character said, “What’s up with the quality control! I thought this was a ten percent! Not a house of amateurs and freaks! How much money have I spent here over the years to be treated like this!” Ten percent refers to room salons employing the upper ten percent in terms of beauty.

The novel, however, goes beyond beauty. It also explored the other facets of Korean society such as the importance placed on the need to have a son and the highly patriarchal society. Wonna’s grandmother once said, “When the boy is born, the daughter is cold rice anyway. Time to throw away.” Mental health issues, one that South Korea has been struggling with, was also woven into the narrative’s tapestry. In Ara’s obsession with Taein, the impact of KPop and KPop idols on the lives of ordinary people is captured.

“You see, I have long understood what most women learn by fire after they are married—that the hate mothers-in-law harbor toward their daughters-in-law is built into the genes of all women in this country. The bile festers below the surface, dormant but still lurking, until the son becomes of marriageable age; the resentment at being pushed aside, the anger of becoming second in their sons’ affections.”

~ Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face

The greatest achievement of If I Had Your Face was Cha’s portrayal of feminine companionship. The friendship and the bond that has formed between and amongst the four primary characters, and one secondary character, was a heartwarming relief from the pressures of economy, culture, and the society as a whole. These flashes of solidarity and genuine friendship were startling dichotomies to the cold, consumerist and materialist society that can easily crush anyone underneath its pressure.

Contrary to expectation, If I Had Your Face is not commentary against the prevailing societal conditions in South Korea. In brilliant strokes, Cha weaved vivid details of South Korean society and culture to complete a narrative that resonates on a global scale. These were just microcosms that project on grander narratives, the superficiality that our contemporary society is wrapped in amongst them. But it wasn’t all black and white. There were some rays of hope as well. Wonna, as the story concludes, finally accepts the baby in her womb. The young Mr. Moon helped Ara survive a traumatic experience during her childhood. The four young women found comfort and company in each other.

With so many things done well, it took some time for the flaws to make their presence felt. Dealing with subjects that were very critical, the lack of of solutions left a gaping hole. For the most part, the story skirted around the sensitive and heavy subjects at the expense of some impressionable characters. Whilst each character rendered the narrative a wide spectrum, Wonna’s story was the most rousing but was also the most under-explored. Her story also represented contemporary Korea’s attitude towards childbirth whilst navigating subjects of mental health. Cha sheds some light on these seminal subjects, some even repeatedly emphasized, but the impact was mostly ephemeral.

On the technical aspect, Cha’s writing was neither bland nor excitable; it was just there. The narrative hit the ground running and it pulsated, compelling. The interactions between the characters often feel disjointed or, worse, contrived. There was also a palpable imbalance between men and women. Men – Hanbin, Bruce, Taein among others – were often depicted as creatures of habit, the epitomes of the age-old maxim, “boys will be boys” nor were they given room or space to improve themselves. Cha’s narrative percolated but it never quite reached the surface.

“Sometimes, when he is holding me and I feel like I am liquid in his arms, I wonder if anything else in my life will seem real after this. It is as if I traveled beyond the earth and reached out and touched a burning star, and it is both endurable and terrifying.”

~ Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face

If I Had Your Face held so much potential, delving in some abrasive aspects of South Korean culture. However, South Korea was just a microcosm as Cha dealt with subjects, both dark and heavy, that resonate on a universal scale. It wasn’t an entirely perfect piece; there were parts where the narrative could have expounded. Nonetheless, Cha made a promising start to what could possibly a prolific writing career. If I Had Your Face is a positively heartwarming story set amidst a backdrop that is slowly being corrupted by the pressures of economy, culture and society.

Rating

64%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face formed part of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To list. The premise of the story initially intrigued me – it is about the country’s obsession with plastic surgery and its unrealistic beauty standards. You see, I’ve been trying to consume as much literature as I can about South Korea, a country whose society and culture that I have been trying to observe and understand through its KPop and variety shows. Whilst I was impressed, and at times shocked, by some of the details of the novel, I felt like most of the seminal issues and concerns that Cha tried to underscore were explored mostly at the surface level. I found the discourse lacking and the writing a little bland. Nonetheless, Cha’s writing has promise.

Book Specs

Author: Frances Cha
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 268
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Kyuri is an achingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a Seoul “room salon,” an exclusive underground bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake threatens her livelihood.

Kyuri’s 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 heir to one of the country’s biggest conglomerates.

Down the hall in their building lives Ara, a hairstylist whose two preoccupations sustain her: an obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that she hopes will change her life.

And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to have a baby, though she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise it in Korea’s brutal economy.

Together, their stories tell a gripping tale at once unfamiliar and unmistakably universal, in which their tentative friendships may turn out to be the thing that ultimately saves them.

About the Author

Frances Cha grew up between the United States, Hong Kong and the South Korean province of Gyeonggi-do.

Cha earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Asian Studies from Dartmouth College. She then atteneded Columbia University for her Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing; she received a Dean’s Fellowship. Before shifting to a writing career, she first worked as the assistant managing editor of Samsung Economic Research Institute’s business journal in Seoul. She was also the travel and culture editor for CNN International in Seoul and Hong Kong.

Cha has also taught different subjects at different universities such as Seoul’s Ewha Womens University, Yonsei University, and Seoul National University and New York’s Columbia University. Her works were published in magazines and publications such as The Atlantic, V Magazine, WWD and The Believer. Her short story As Long As I Live was recently published in the Korean-language anthology New York Story. In 2020, her debut novel, If I Had Your Face was published.

She currently lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters. She also spends summer in Seoul, Korea.