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'If I Had Your Face' review: Riveting tale of body and Seoul

Frances Cha's

Frances Cha's "If I Had Your Face" is set in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: Ballantine Books

IF I HAD YOUR FACE by Frances Cha (Ballantine, 288 pp., $27)

If you’re on a post-"Parasite" hunt for more South Korean culture, Frances Cha’s fascinating debut novel If I Had Your Face" is just the ticket.

It’s also set in Seoul, but a Seoul totally different from the one in Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning movie. Cha takes us inside the world of single working women in a culture where beauty standards and gender inequality seem to have driven people insane. Or maybe this insanity is just easier to spot than the version of it we’re inured to in our own landscape.

“If I Had Your Face” tells the story of a group of women who live in the Color House, a gray apartment building without “a speck of color anywhere.” There are two sets of roommates — Ara and Sujin, Kyuri and Miho — who live on the supercheap fourth floor. As Miho explains, “I didn’t realize the aversion to the number 4 was only an Asian superstition until I went to America where they have an aversion to the number 13 because of some horror movie with a clown. Or a vampire, I forget.”

Three of the girls grew up together in the provincial capital of Cheongju; Miho and Sujin were raised in an orphanage while Ara was the daughter of servants to a wealthy family. Sujin invited Miho to come live with her after she graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she went on full scholarship. She returned with a boyfriend from an ultrarich Korean family whose powerful mother refuses to meet her.

The exquisitely beautiful Kyuri has a rich boyfriend too, only her arrangement is explicitly commercial. Having started as a prostitute in the red-light district, she is now a “room salon girl” at a “10 percent.” A room salon is a kind of private bar where men bring clients to discuss business while women pour alcohol and drink with them. A 10 percent employs the prettiest 10 percent of girls in the industry and, as Kyuri explains, the pressure to have sex with clients is more discreet.

To make it to a 10 percent, Kyuri has had dozens of surgical and cosmetic procedures, many of which require continual upkeep. “The stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line. Long feathery eyelashes have been planted along her tattooed eye line, and she does routine light therapy on her skin, which glistens cloudy white, like skim milk.”

While Kyuri has modeled her face on that of a K-pop singer named Candy, she is idolized by Sujin, who aspires to make money the way Kyuri does. Sujin is about to have her first jaw surgery, a procedure so terrifying she leaves a will at home on the kitchen table. For months her face will be so deformed and swollen she can barely eat or leave the house, but if all goes well, she may get the heart shape she dreams of. 

While the title seems to refer to these literal coveted faces, Cha’s portrait of her characters’ lives and connections is anything but superficial. There’s so much to delve into — the back story of the orphanage, why Ara is mute, Miho’s art career, a downstairs neighbor’s pregnancy after four miscarriages, the betrayals committed by every man in the book and the women’s reactions to them. If some plot lines are left unresolved, Cha’s point is not to provide fairy tale endings but to suggest that nothing is more essential and life-affirming than the connections between women.

And that is a point that hits home.

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