I am genetically blessed with what some refer to as ‘good skin’. I never had pimples as a teen and I’ve never worn makeup. My skin routine is essentially washing my face with water and using a supermarket moisturiser when I remember. When I was 42, a cosmetic-surgeon-acquaintance told me that Botox at my age was ‘pointless because the wrinkles were already there’. Apparently you need to start young so that you never have any wrinkles to smooth out in the first place. Thankfully I don’t care about wrinkles* and nor was I in anyway offended that the acquaintance assumed Botox was on my radar!
Anyway, this is a long introduction to Frances Cha’s accomplished and fascinating debut, If I Had Your Face.
The story is set in Seoul, Korea and focuses on four young women, each grappling with Korea’s particularly high standards of beauty, strict social hierarchies, and misogynist society – the connection between beauty, money and power is hardly new, however Cha offers fresh perspective.
It’s a character driven novel and although each of the women will stay with me for different reasons, Kyuri’s story was the most compelling. Kyuri, who had had more cosmetic procedures than she could count, is in debt to the manager of the ‘room salon’ where she works, entertaining wealthy businessmen. She works to save for more procedures, hoping to secure a position at a better salon. And the cycle continues. Ultimately she has no economic power and therefore is completely vulnerable.
I’m sorely tempted by the ‘Strapless Package’, which includes Botox for the back of the shoulders, ‘fat kill’ injections for the underarms, and a choice between Healite II LED therapy or cryotherapy… Going down the list, I am reminded I need more armpit whitening and lip edge injections because the little curls on either side of my lips have begun to droop.
The women’s stories intersect in numerous ways. Many of the issues the women face are universal, particularly in regards to complicated relationships, pressures from family, and career decisions. Cha manages to capture both the competitiveness between the women and the emotional intimacy, as well as exploring themes of escaping the past and determining one’s own future.
There are scenes in this book that are shocking – swift and stark, and each mirrored the way ‘incidents’ were handled in the room salon where, in the face of trouble, the women bowed their heads, ‘accepted’ responsibility, and wordlessly watched their debt mount.
Cha positions cosmetic surgery as a necessity in Korea, rather than a vanity. It is a thought provoking perspective on ever-escalating consumerism and, combined with glimpses of Korean popular culture, it makes for a fascinating and unexpectedly gripping novel.
4/5 I look forward to reading more from Cha in the future.
I received my copy of If I Had Your Face from the publisher, Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
*one of my lecturers advised that Botox is a career-killer because no one wants a counsel or with an expressionless face!
On weekends, I occasionally catch them on their way out. But the best is when I hear them knocking on each other’s doors to borrow makeup or order fried chicken together at strange hours of the day.