Thursday, September 24, 2020

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

ISBN-10 : 0593129466 - Hardcover $27
Publisher : Ballantine Books (April 21, 2020), 288 pages.
Review copy courtesy of Ballantine Books & NetGalley.
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.
The blurb: 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.

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.

My Review:  Sometimes reviews mention that a book doesn't read like a debut novel.  If I Had Your Face is complex, riveting and combines the stories of women's friendships with several dark mysteries.  It's different from many of the books I've read lately and isn't easy to characterize as a mystery or a thriller even though the story has many unexpected twists. 

Regardless of how it can be characterized, I loved it.  I was drawn to the book by the beautiful cover and an affinity for Asian American writers but this is turned on its head.  Though the writer is Asian American, the book is about South Korean women living in Seoul.  The stories of these women and their experiences are shaped by where they live.

If I Had Your Face ties together the lives of a group of young women living in a centrally located condo-office building in Seoul. 

Kyuri is a beautiful young woman who works at a top ten "room salon" that boasts of having the top 10% of beauties to entertain wealthy Korean businessmen.  As one of the top earners, Kyuri receives expensive gifts from her recurring clients.  

Her neighbor Sujin dreams of looking like Kyuri and earning the large sums that top room girls bring home every night.  Sujin believes that a face like Kyuri's will free her to a different life altogether.  The prevalence of plastic surgery comes across clearly as author Frances Cha describes the procedures Sujin has already undergone and those that she has been saving for, coveting, hoping will differentiate her from the other girls in her situation.  Sujin had grown up in the Loring Center  - a place for orphans and disabled individuals.

Sujin's hometown and girlhood friend is Ara.  Ara has a disability that occurred after her birth although we're not sure what happened or the extent of it.  We do know that her disability is known to strangers and that they treat her differently. Ara feels singled out and her disability affects how she works at the hair saloon.  Despite the disability, Ara is talented. Though Ara is not an orphan, she feels disconnected from her parents and avoids returning home for the holidays. She prefers to spend her time and emotions on friends like Sujin.

Miho is an orphan who had been with Sujin in the Loring Center.  But Miho has given special treatment and attention at the Loring Center because of her talent in art and her unusual beauty.  Through the Loring Center, Miho was able to win a scholarship to New York University and this opportunity led Miho to meet and befriend the rich and powerful children of chaebol owning families.  

Miho works for Ruby's gallery and spends her time with Ruby and her longtime boyfriend Hanbin.  When Miho returns to South Korea, she lives with Kyuri and in the same floor as Sujin. Miho has a special fellowship at a university and spends her time with Hanbin and on her art.

Miho, Sujin, Kyuri and Ara opt to live on the cheapest floor - the 4th floor of the building.  Four is considered an unlucky number since it resembles the character for death in Chinese.  Above these young girls lives Wonna, a married woman, who watches their comings and goings with some envy. 

Frances Cha shows us both the lives that these women present and the lives that they keep hidden.  The way that Cha reveals the secret desires and pain of each of the five women is so skillful and carefully done that I couldn't stop reading.  If I Had Your Face takes us to another side of life in South Korea and we learn to appreciate the friendships and trials that these young women face.   If I Had Your Face was so different from what I had expected from the cover and I am grateful to the publisher and NetGalley for making this available. I recommend it highly!

About the Author:  Frances Cha is a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul. She grew up in the United States, Hong Kong, and South Korea. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the Columbia University MFA writing program, she has written for The Atlantic, The Believer, and the Yonhap News Agency, among others, and has lectured at Columbia University, Ewha Womans University, Seoul National University, and Yonsei University. She lives in Brooklyn. 


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