If I Had Your Face is a first novel, and it shows. Frances Cha follows four (or maybe five) young women in Seoul as they try to keep their heads above water. They live in a boarding house and have slowly reached out to each other over time. There’s an artist, an entertainer in a ‘room salon,’ a mute hairdresser, her friend who is obsessed with extreme plastic surgery, and a pregnant lady downstairs who initially looks down on these women, but eventually seeks their companionship. While initially, Cha sets up the story very well – teasing details about each of the women, including that some of them share a past at an orphanage in rural South Korea. Cha initially adroitly weaves in big issues like plastic surgery and conceptions of beauty, sexism and misogyny in South Korea, the tremendously high cost of living in Seoul and how that dampens choices, and the wealth gap; however, through the course of the novel the story seems to be lost. While there are character arcs, they don’t eventually end up anywhere. It is possible that Cha is trying to reflect life, in that threads are dropped all the time (in my life), but it isn’t satisfying for me when there isn’t a ‘there’ there in a novel.
For example, the artist, Miho, has a very wealthy boyfriend, and there is some great back story development about how they met in the United States because she got a scholarship due to some political scandals involving orphanages in South Korea – so, all of this is really interesting, but the story continues with a suicide and infidelity and… Her work is described lovingly. There is so much potential story here that I want to know more, but instead it is kind of a Cliff’s notes version of her life, because then we rush to a section on one of her friends. Don’t get me wrong, I was really interested in learning more about Kyuri, who ran away from the orphanage and worked her way up through the sex industry to a job in a room salon. She invested in a lot of plastic surgery in order to achieve her enchantingly beautiful façade, and to make it to the pinnacle of sex work. However, she had to take loans in order to afford the surgery and she spends money profligately on fashion and alcohol in order to stay popular with the patrons and to numb her feelings at the bleakness of the work. She also knows her popularity will wane with her age and looks. Again, so many fascinating and moving and depressing threads, but no real story – no framework to tie them together. Ara, the boyband-obsessed, mute hairstylist and Wonna, the pregnant lady, also had threads that were well worth exploring in depth, but instead we got a superficial view of their lives. (Honestly, I hate to describe Wonna only as the pregnant lady, but that was really the main thrust of her thin story.)
As I noted, this was clearly a first novel, but I think Cha has a good eye for these women’s lives and they are certainly unlike more of what we see and hear about South Korea (and, yes, I have watched my fair share of K dramas!). While Kyuri looks glamorous and Miho has a chaebol boyfriend – tropes in K dramaland! – they struggled for the fairly desperate lives they live, with little hope and none of the sparkle and good luck that befall the average K drama heroine. I really do wish that Cha had chosen one or two of the women to explore deeply, perhaps with the other women playing much more minor roles, because the character sketches she drafted deserve more. I will look for more work by Cha, because I appreciated that she had good character sketches, in the hopes that as a more mature writer she may develop a story that better supports them.