If I Had Your Face is the astonishing debut novel by Korean-American Frances Cha, a former writer and editor for CNN International, about a group of young women navigating life in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Both disturbing in its depiction of extreme beauty culture, whilst also being highly entertaining. Amid the backdrop of Seoul, there is extraordinary pressure to conform to western notions of beauty. This quest for beauty informs the novel as it provides us a window into the daily life of the four main characters. It is a story about female friendship but one that is knitted together by consumerism and obsessive beauty culture.
The novel is told from alternating perspectives of the four main characters: Ara, a hairstylist who is a mute derived from a childhood accident; Kyuri, a room salon girl which is a high-class party host who often goes on “dates” with her wealthy clients; Wonna, a slightly older office worker who resides in the same officetel (studio apartments in downtown Seoul) as the other main characters; and Miho, a visual artist who is dating an extremely wealthy young man. A secondary character, Sujin, is wholly enamored of Kyuri, who has gone to great lengths to “improve” her natural beauty. As the story unfolds, Kyuri, who we learn has endured numerous facial surgeries including the common blepharoplasty (addition of a second eye fold to make the eyes appear more open) and a jawline shaving to make her face appear less angular, is helping Sujin who has just undergone facial surgery.
The backdrop for the novel offers an accurate rendering of the beauty industry in Seoul. According to Business Insider, South Korea has the “highest rate of plastic surgeries per capita” worldwide as there are more than 500 facial plastic surgery clinics in the Gangnam district of Seoul alone. Medical tourism is a thriving industry where the vast majority of Korean women obtain a blepharoplasty as some of the characters in the novel underwent. The Huffington Post further notes that apps and websites cater to plastic surgery as it is not uncommon for a high school graduate to receive a planned surgery as a graduation gift. Approximately 30% of South Korean women have undergone plastic surgery.
In addition to the beauty industry, the book sheds light on the rigid social hierarchy in South Korea. All the characters in the story occupy a middle/lower-middle strata with the exception of Miho’s wealthy boyfriend Hanbin. Life for the four women is alternately between exciting and pitiful. Ara lost her voice when she was brutally attacked as a troubled preteen and though she has a rushing clientele in her hair salon she is enamored with a member of a K-pop boy band. Yet it is actually the character Kyuri who seems the most melancholy. She has obtained the greatest level of “success” with multiple facial surgeries and a job as a high-class salon room girl but behind that veneer, she seems sad as her evenings and nights are spent on repetitive benders. As the story progresses, Kyuri’s ascent to a 10% room girl (the highest rank of salon rooms and the least obscene) is detailed. Once I understood her earlier life, it was not difficult to sense her sadness and dislocation.
Themes of patriarchy, misogyny, childhood abuse also inform the story. There is one line in particular that seems to epitomize the way in which some wealthy Korean men objectify women through entreaties to the salons and also as the center of their relationships with their girlfriends. In characterizing one of her regular salon clients whom she has routine sexual trysts with, Kyuri notes,
“I don’t know at what age men become assholes—boyhood, teenage years? When they start earning some real money?”
This is part of the crux of the problem that is lifted out by this book. Restrictive gender roles for women, unrealistic notions of beauty, and low rates of marriage and childbirth create a maelstrom of life for twenty-somethings in South Korea.
Despite these dark themes, or perhaps because of them, I found this book both riveting and edifying. The reading itself was not difficult even though the backdrop suggests that western beauty shapes popular consciousness in Seoul. Frankly, it saddens me to think of all the ways some 30% of Korean women take to the knife. But, similarly, there are fairly high rates of cosmetic surgery in the U.S. as well. As a contrast to those women in the story who endorse the beauty industry - Ara, Kyuri, and Sujin - it was interesting to learn about what makes Miho tick as an artist, though in selecting a particular Korean woman as a muse for a series of works it may be that she also idealizes western beauty, but in capturing that aesthetic and not changing her own appearance.
I learned about the social chasm in Korean society both in terms of economics, birth and marriage rate, and roles available to women. For example, it seems that there are stark gender constraints in earning. The gender wage gap in South Korea is noted as the highest among OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) as women earn less than 64 cents to every dollar earned by South Korean men. The women in Cha’s novel seem to reflect that gender gap as societal wealth is reflected in both men who patronize the salon rooms and also in Miho’s boyfriend, Hanbin. And, the likes of Kyuri who epitomizes beauty in South Korea also remains indebted to her madam, getting deeper and deeper into an endless spiral into a lower-class position.
The stratified social classes reminded me of some of what is evident in the 2020 Oscar winner Parasite (2019) directed by Bong Joon-ho, which depicts a wide chasm between two Korean families. The lower-class, financially-strapped Kims reside in a shabby basement apartment worlds apart physically and economically from the wealthy and elite Park clan. The Kims parlay their skill-sets—both real and rehearsed—into jobs working for the Parks as an English tutor, an art therapist and teacher, a driver, and a housekeeper. The Kims barely have enough money to secure food and when their basement apartment gets flooded it shows the extreme bifurcation of class when contrasted with the wealth of the Park family household. Perhaps, like Cha, Bong shows us that even those with good skill sets like Ki-Woo Kim, who despite possessing top-notch English skills, cannot afford college like his friend, Min.
While If I Had Your Face has none of the dark criminal elements behind Bong Joon’s award-winning film, it does demonstrate a similar sort of economic stratification. For example, despite Kyuri’s seeming success in her industry, she is financially beholdened to her “madam” and also indicates the fleeting nature of her cosmetic surgeries that require “refinements.” Like the Kims prior to their employment schemes, the women in Cha’s book seem stuck within the lower-middle-class society in Seoul. But here’s where the movie and the book divide—the marriage rate and low birth rate resonate in If I Had Your Face. Millennials like the main characters are opting out of both marriage and childbearing, as both are on the decline in South Korea according to sociologist Yue Qian. It is also worth noting that South Korea has the lowest birth rate (1.1 per family) worldwide. Thus, South Korean women, even those who have the appearance of success lack the financial stability to go along with their physical success markers. And perhaps that is Cha’s prescience—while beauty culture might appear to be a social leveler it is still just a façade of upward mobility.
If I Had Your Face
By Frances Cha
237 pages. 2020.