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.
Really interesting. I started this last year and stopped – for no particular reason – but you’ve made me think I should revisit.
It took a little bit to get into but once you’ve read a chapter or two from the perspective of each of the women, it picks up pace. Worth revisiting!
I have no skincare regiment at all … and it seems too late to start one now! (I’m more bothered by grey hairs than wrinkles but someday that situation may be reversed.) This is a fantastic cover I wish I’d remembered for my post on my favourite covers from 2020. And I think I’d like the book, too.
I meant regimen, of course. Argh!
The one thing that I have always done (and because my grandma told me to) is to always wear sunglasses, so that you’re not squinting (therefore no crows feet!). I have followed this advice. It works.
That’s one thing I am very good about. My sunglasses live in my purse. I occasionally forget them on short winter walks around the neighbourhood, but that’s it. I always wear a hat in the summer, too. I’ve noticed others my age developing sun spots and crows’ feet on their faces because they don’t.
It was a book that had different covers in different countries – I think the one that was more widely distributed had a pink and yellow stylised photograph (was also a great cover but I agree, this one is a standout).
My skin holds my body in, which is all I ask of it, though it scratches more easily as I get older. It’s terrible what situations women (in particular) get into by relying on being able to sell their appearance. It’s something I think that second wave feminism (1960s) tackled but that third wave seems to this casual observer (with daughters and granddaughters) to have got wrong.
I agree, Bill. All that 3rd wave nonsense about how enslavement to one’s appearance is empowering…
There’s a meme about Kamala Harris (who I admire) which shows her in ridiculous high heels accompanied by a caption referencing Ruby Bridges walking “so that Kamala could run”. I know it’s not meant to be taken literally, but still, she couldn’t run to catch a bus in those heels… and though it shouldn’t be necessary, (apart from the fact that we are so often on our feet all day), we women still need to be able to run to get out of trouble sometimes so it sends a wrong message IMO. I would like powerful women to be role models that don’t engage with the male-gaze playbook…
I had a stage II melanoma a few years ago. It certainly changed how I viewed my skin (an odd mix of feeling like it’s a time bomb and taking extra care).
Re: daughters and grand daughters – social media has a lot to answer for. It has made scrutiny relentless, and exposure to someone else’s ‘ideal’ (and lets face it, that someone is most likely a male), also relentless. And it’s not only social media – it’s impossible to be online without seeing advertising.
Great review! I enjoyed this one too and found it a fascinating look into Korean culture, not to mention the world of cosmetic enhancements which is something I’m largely unfamiliar with.
I have to agree, a counsellor really does need to be able to convey facial expressions!
I have this one, currently packed though and still enroute to me.
I love your take on this novel. You summarized the plastic surgery culture and its impact so well.
Did you feel at all like you didn’t want it to end or there could be a sequel? I was so engaged by the end I wanted to know what happened next for this group of women.
I thought the ending was hopeful but left open enough for more – I certainly wanted more! I also wondered about it being made into a film/ tv series.