Does your face dictate your fortune? Frances Cha asks this question in her debut novel If I Had Your Face: a title that echoes the conversations of women looking at each other in the mirrors of club bathrooms, through screens, and across generations.
This is a bittersweet book, as there is a different emotion on every page and many themes are explored. The reader follows the lives of four women and an extensive cast surrounding them. Their stories unravel through the eyes of each other, as well as through a character-driven style that does not sacrifice plot for interiority.
The story begins with Sujin’s conviction that if her face were a different shape – if she could have surgery at the aptly named ‘Cinderella’ clinic – she will achieve her dream of becoming a salon room girl: beautiful women well paid to drink with rich and powerful men. She is watched by Kyuri who, in having the seemingly glamorous lifestyle Sujin covets, knows better. Though the novel is saturated with references to the fairy tale endings young girls are often promised, it does not bore the reader by dashing all hope entirely, as the first few pages threaten to do. Even the cynical Kyuri is pleasantly surprised by what life can offer. Yet she does not learn this lesson until Sujin sees in her a potential she never knew she had.
I would recommend this novel to any womxn in their early twenties, of course, but also to those looking to be reminded of what it really is to be young. This book manages to accurately recount the weight of expectation without mentioning social media apps at all: a testament to how deeply ingrained and timeless the pressure on youth to ‘make it’ can be. The writing is well balanced, yet unpredictable; Cha is not afraid to deliver horrifying punchlines to what would otherwise be a series of romantic coming-of-age tales. Nor does she shy away from the gore of surgery, bodily suffering, and the more toxic elements of female relationships. This is a pertinent read when living in a society where women are encouraged to look after each other – or so they say. It is questioned throughout the novel as to whether our belief in sisterhood is reality or just virtue signalling.
Cha uses varied points of view for her portraits of these women. Looking at the same situation through the eyes of another results in both humour and corruption. The reader is left wondering whether they really know any of the characters at all. At the same time, it is easy to agonize over how the women cannot see how connected they are, as all are isolated by the same restrictions: competition, expectation, and harsh economics. Relief from these anxieties is found in friendship, which Cha believes all should know regardless of age, race, gender – or what your face looks like.
You can purchase this book: here.