At the beginning of Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea, Kyuri is seated at her plastic surgeon’s office and spots the K-Pop star whose look she copied for her many surgeries. The K-Pop star looks as if she’d been crying and pulls a cap down over her face when Kyuri peers over at her. When the star is called back into an exam room, the two women lock eyes. Kyuri says to herself:
I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to stay. You have so much and you can do anything you want. I would live your life so much better than you if I had your face.
Kyuri, Miho, Sujin and Ara are all friends in their twenties living in an office-tel, or a building with studio apartments and office space. Wonna and her husband live on the first floor, also in a studio, and are a little older than the four friends. All five women grew up under modest circumstances and struggle to make ends meet in Seoul as adults. Kyuri and Sujin hope plastic surgery will bring in much income at the “room salon” where Kyuri works and Sujin hopes to be employed after her surgery scars disappear. But as the K-Pop star at the doctor’s office shows, surgery does not bring happiness or stability.
Room salons are fronts for prostitution, but also private karaoke rooms where men drink and pay “room salon girls” to drink and sing with them. Kyuri receives designer handbags and other gifts from regulars, including a man she calls Bruce. In a humorous scene, Kyuri and Sujin appear at the fanciest Chinese restaurant in Seoul when Kyuri learns that Bruce and his family will meet his fiancée and her family there. Bruce doesn’t take to it very well.
The other women endure similar struggles. Miho is an artist dating the son of one of Seoul’s wealthiest families; his parents have no interest in meeting Miho. They know their son will never marry her because she grew up in an orphanage and can’t trace her lineage in the same ways they can. Miho tries not to let this get to her:
For all its millions of people, Korea is the size of a fishbowl and someone is always looking down on someone else. That’s just the way it is in this country, and the reason why people ask a series of rapid-fire questions the minute they meet you.
Miho has her art, but Ara is mute and has a contentious relationship with her family back in Cheongju. She trained in Seoul as a hairstylist and works at a fancy salon in Gangnam, making a decent living. Still, her parents worry about her chances for marriage and fear she will be all alone when she’s their age. What seems beyond them is that Ara has a great group of friends who aren’t thinking about marriage either.
Wonna, their downstairs neighbor, is married and battling infertility. After three miscarriages, she’s convinced her fourth pregnancy won’t take. Her husband is in middle management and doesn’t earn enough for them to purchase their own flat. Wonna works for a company and her salary also isn’t high. So she’s not even sure they can afford a baby. Childcare costs are astronomical and there’s no family to help out. Her mother left when Wonna was young and her husband’s mother died many years earlier.
The women in Cha’s novel all deal with very real issues, but don’t need their parents, boyfriends, husbands or bosses to save them. They have each other.