If I Had Your Face, by Frances Cha, reveals the stories of five young women working in Seoul. There are so many stories about young people trying to make it in New York City and this novel hits some of those familiar notes, like cruel supervisors, dating woes, and the ache of being working-class right next to extreme privilege and luxury. But this is a distinctly Korean story, too, with the importance of family connections to get a job, name-dropping of unfamiliar schools and neighborhoods, and the intense beauty industry. The mix of the familiar and foreign makes this an engrossing story.
Kyuri works as a drinks hostess in a "room salon," basically a rental girlfriend. The upscale club hires only the most beautiful women, but it's less of a glamorous life for her, and more of a constant squeeze between the amount she earns and the amount she has to spend to keep up her appearance. Her neighbor Sujin knows that if she only had Kyuri's beautiful face, or at least her jawline and eyelids, she could change her life. Fortunately for Sujin, these attributes are for sale at surgery clinics all over Seoul, as soon as she saves up enough money. The extreme beauty of South Korea means not just the usual dieting and makeup, but painful cosmetic surgeries with lasting side effects. Anyone who's ever had the transformative thrill of a new hairstyle will understand the attraction of becoming more beautiful, and there's a compelling, believable slide from those K-beauty face packs, to diet pills or maybe a little Botox, to an entirely new, beautiful face, side effects or no.
Sujin's roommate, Ara, is a mute hair stylist, obsessed with a handsome K-Pop star as she works to make her clients in the salon look beautiful. The girls in office-tel all work, but in Seoul's hypercompetitive economy, they're still struggling have-nots. I didn't recognize the specific places and neighborhoods mentioned, but the dream of apartment ownership in this novel felt like looking at a doorman building in Manhattan.
Their neighbor, Miho, has won a prestigious art fellowship and the affections of a handsome, wealthy boyfriend, but at a terrible cost. Her boyfriend could make her career take off, with a call or two, but she's determined not to make him feel used. Their downstairs neighbor, Wonna, is finally pregnant, but neither she or her husband have the powerful connections, high income or savings needed to set a new baby up for future success. Like each of the single girls upstairs, her life seems perfect from one angle, but untenable from another.
Simply put, I read this in one sitting, engrossed by the web of the young women's secret pasts and secret longings. So much of this was a foreign culture, mixed in with the relatable, familiar worries about money and appearance for a compelling story. I was almost annoyed when it finished because I desperately wanted to know what happened next in the office-tel.
If I Had Your Face is by Frances Cha and published by Ballantine Books, on April 21, 2020.