If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Still catching up on a few overdue reviews from the past month or so. My life has been an absolute mess lately (and is likely to continue to be that way), so these will be a little brief.

Description

“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.” – blurb on the back of my copy.

Recommendation

I read this book for my book club. I suggested it because I had heard about it from another group of people that were trying to start a book club (that sadly never took off) and it sounded interesting. The writing didn’t blow me away, but if the premise in the description sounds appealing to you or if you want to find out more about what “room salons” are (basically prostitution with extra steps), it’s a pretty quick read.

Cover of If I Had Your Face

Discussion

This is the fourth book I’ve read about Korean topics written by a Korean author. The others were The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, and Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan. Those books were translated from Korean into English, whereas If I Had Your Face was written in English. I found all four books to be pretty depressing, although Cha’s novel has what could be considered a cautiously optimistic ending. Still, I’m left wondering if there’s any true middle ground between the sugar-coated, rose-colored-glasses-type stories that populate K-dramas and the “everything sucks and everyone is miserable; to be a woman is to be cursed” stories that seem to abound in Korean literature. Hereby soliciting recommendations for non-depressing novels set in Korea and written by Korean authors. 

Interestingly, If I Had Your Face also felt similar in mechanics and technique to the other Korean literature I’ve read, which as I mentioned above, was all translated from Korean into English. They share a style that’s characterized by short sentences that somehow feel sparse and overly-descriptive–stating mostly the obvious. Sentences like “I wish I could invite one or more of them over, but that would require me to possess an entirely different personality” and “He was passed out because he was hungover from the night before” feel antithetical to the old “show, don’t tell” adage that’s taught in every undergrad writing class in US colleges. Is “show, don’t tell” a Western literature thing? Are there explicitly opposed values in Eastern, or specifically Korean, literature? 

I wasn’t really a fan of the writing on a mechanics and style level but the scenes and characters were compelling enough to keep me invested. I don’t feel like I had a very good sense of the passage of time in the book. Everything seems to move fast while standing still, but maybe that’s intentional. Overall, I probably wouldn’t prioritize reading another of Cha’s books, but I enjoyed it well enough. I’d recommend it to people that are already interested in the topics. 

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