Frances Cha’s unhappy, stunning debut is a real, engrossing look into the lives of Korea’s young women you won’t want to put down. Instantly invested, my heart broke for each of these characters as I turned the pages. If I Had Your Face will stick in the back of my mind for a long time to come.

Author: Frances Cha

Genre: Literary Fiction

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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 that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise 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.

YOUNG UNHAPPINESS

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.

The title for this novel is apt for many reasons. The characters in Cha’s beautiful debut marinate in envy and dissatisfaction, acting at once as friends to one another but also, inevitably, as objects of comparison. As we move through each girl’s mind, we discover one main commonality: they are rarely happy, and when they are, they hardly notice.

Instead, they spend most of their time judging others, worrying about others, or wanting something else. As a result, while few of them are entirely likeable, they are each painfully relatable. Cha is not afraid to be realistic about the way Korean society (and, to a certain extent, capitalist society in general) can ruthlessly push young minds into dark, cramped, trapped-feeling places.

I try to see it through Miho’s and Sujin’s eyes, and it is as painful as I predicted. The edges of the living room wallpaper have turned a shade of yellow…I also hope Miho doesn’t notice my parents’ matching “Adidis” slippers in the foyer.

Cha does not illustrate this young angst in a vacuum. Instead, through consistently young, self-centered narrative, the reader is able to see the effects of a kind of cultural, generational brutality—a side effect of immense change in a small country in short period of time. Not that this inheritance—or knowledge of it—helps the main characters at all.

I remember my aunt telling my cousin Kyunghee and me, when we were small, that my grandmother had died of anger. She had choked to death on han—the pent-up rage from all the pillaged generations before her—seeing her parents die before her eyes, having served her mother-in-law as a body slave until she aged long before her time. To have a son—my father—that turned out to be a weak fool, led astray by a cunning daughter-in-law—my mother.

MATERIALISM AND STATUS

Money, and almost directly after that things, which really just mean status, is both aspirational and destructive, not only to the main characters in this book, but to a whole nation. In a blunt, unavoidable way, Cha puts a spotlight on how the wealth and status of these girls determine not only their prospects but also the way they think about themselves.

These characters have a casual awareness of the strict castes through which they move each day; Kyuri makes money from men with an excess of both wealth and status (though not happiness, not for them either); Ara lives within a narrow parameter of what she thinks her background privledges her to achieve—and perhaps believes that she already lives beyond that; Sujin strives for higher status by putting herself through grueling, dangerous, unimaginably painful plastic surgery; Miho is hyper-aware of the far higher status of her boyfriend; and Wonna feels utterly imprisoned by her finances and life choices, having “settled” for a life that seems to make her miserable.

Each girl envies one or all of the other girls for something, and yet as a reader it’s easier to imagine that they were all somewhat doomed from the start, and that if they continue to live in Korea, their happiness will continue to be fleeting. Sweet, rare, and fleeting.

It’s not an original thought perhaps, but I think people watch so much TV because life would otherwise be unbearable. Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all.

But I grew up not knowing the difference between a bearable life and an unbearable life, and by the time I discovered there was such a thing, it was too late.

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