“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – unless beauty is determined by society. Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, follows Ara (a mute hairdresser), Kyuri (a cosmetically beautiful girl working at a ‘room salon’ to entertain drunk businessmen), Miho (an orphaned artist who has to face scrutiny from her boyfriend’s upper class family), and Wonna (a newlywed anxious to get pregnant). The sad thing is these characters focus so much attention on their outward appearance, and impressing others, they forget to work on their own personalities.
Korea has a culture several thousand years old, yet this novel has reduced it down to the importance of your looks and how you rank in society. It’s a sad but true fact in Korean society that many young women are prescribed, even “gifted”, surgery to somehow advance their status. There has to be more to life than making sure your face fits the beauty standards of society, right? Apparently not.
Cha weaves the backgrounds of her characters together with a beautiful stroke of her pen yet the voices lack distinction from one another. The stories are vivid yet empty. It further fuels competition between the young women as they maintain unlikely friendships while stumbling their way through life. Granted, these girls are only in their 20s but their lives could be summed up in a tabloid magazine – focused only on outward appearances. This is not to say Korea is the only country who focuses on looks. The same can be said around the world.
Though the young women are friends, there’s an underlying selfishness that ties them together. Kyuri forces her friend Sujin to stalk her client who she’s in love with, even though Sujin is trying to recover from eyelid and jaw surgery. Miho relishes her status as the art department’s mascot, rather than a forty year old woman who’s divorced, overweight, and therefore invisible to society. Wonna is unimpressed with her husband’s status, especially now that she’s pregnant. And Ara prefers to obsess about a K-pop star rather than interact with the world.
It saddens me to think about the rich history that flows through the veins of all Koreans, yet still we see so many worried about making money, perfecting their already beautiful faces, and whether or not their K-pop heartthrob will ever notice them. What about perfecting a personality that can uphold their looks? When did we stop caring about the person underneath? It goes to show that the more women are focused on their outsides, the more empty they feel within even when they “look” perfect on the inside.
If I Had Your Face provides us with a closer look at what lower class young women have to do in order to survive in contemporary Seoul. Cha is an eloquent writer but the story and characters presented here lack any dimensions, the four female voices blending together to create a clunky narrative. Beauty is upheld around the world but at what cost? Instead of distracting women with what they look like, why not encourage them to explore who they are instead? But of course, that’s only if society will allow it.