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If I Had Your Face

May 6, 2020

IMG_3924I’ve been reading two books about faces: a novel by Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face, which is set in South Korea, and a nonfiction work by Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, which is about the rise of Russia from the rubble of the former Soviet Union. These two would seem to have little in common, aside from their titles, but for an American reader, they both help to paint a picture of what is happening in the world, and how fast it could spread.

At the beginning of If I Had Your Face, the four main characters, all female, seem to be obsessed with their looks. Kyuri, who works at a “room salon” in Seoul, had surgery on her eyes and her jaw in order to get her job. She modeled her face on a pop singer’s, saying “I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.”

But then we find out that what seemed like a good job means that “one minute, you are accepting loans from madams and pimps and bloodsucking moneylenders for a quick surgery to fix your face, and the next minute the debt has ballooned to a staggering, unpayable sum. You work, work, work until your body is ruined and there is no way out but to keep working. Even though you will seemingly make a lot of money, you will never be able to get out of it entirely.”

Later we find out that where Kyuri works “if anything serious happens, the girls take the blame. It’s never the Madam or the actual owner of the room salon, who is always some shadowy fuck who’s busy pretending like he’s high society, his wife sucking up to richer people, trying to pretend like their money isn’t dirty. It has always been that way and always will be. Us girls, we have been trained for years: ‘Say that you were the one who wanted to sleep with the customer. You just wanted some money. Got it?’ So the girl gets jailed and fined for prostitution, and vilified in society as someone who does this for easy money.”

Even Kyuri’s roommate, Miho, who has been lucky enough to find work as an artist, doesn’t see how much of her situation depends on luck and help from a well-connected man. For a while she thinks that “Kyuri suffers from persecution mania….She sees herself as the victim—of men, of the room salon industry, of Korean society, of the government.” Later Miho’s eyes are opened. There’s a funny and horrible scene when her wealthy boyfriend complains about having to work menial jobs in his family’s hotel empire and she sees that the class divide that she already knew was very wide is absolutely unbridgeable.

While the rigid class divisions of South Korea may be horrifying to an American reader, the Korean characters are just as horrified by some of the things they learn about women’s lives in the U.S. Kyuri finds it hard to believe that “in America, they don’t sell birth control over the counter and you need a doctor to prescribe it. And to see a doctor, you can’t just walk in—you have to schedule an appointment days or even weeks in advance.” Another character, Wonna, finds out that her maternity leave will not be a year but only three months, and her boss tells her “you know, in America, they have three weeks of maternity leave. Or something like that.”

Ara, who works in a beauty salon, tells a story that illustrates her bleak outlook on life:
“One of my customers said to me once that the problem with a lot of my generation in this country is that we do not live for tomorrow. He was a professor of sociology and had been quizzing the assistants about their life choices, which obviously made them uncomfortable. They would not be working at a salon if they could answer such questions positively, I wanted to say. But of course he and everyone else knew that already, and he was simply being cruel by bringing it up.”

At the end of the novel, the four women band together to help Wonna bring up her baby, and Ara thinks that now she can “understand what it would be like to think only about tomorrow, instead of just today.” It’s an incongruously hopeful ending for a story about the rich getting richer and those whose labor they exploit continuing to go unnoticed.

As the divide between rich and poor in the U.S. continues to grow—with people who are working at home shouting “I want a haircut” as part of an attempt to force those in the service industry to get back to work by cutting off their unemployment benefits—we may see more women in the desperate straits these four characters are in. They seem shallow and short-sighted until you look closer.

(A separate post on The Man Without a Face is coming soon.)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2020 5:07 am

    I like the sound of this, although as you say, the ending sounds incongruous. Was it translated or does Cha write in English?

    • May 6, 2020 7:58 am

      Cha writes in English. She graduated from Dartmouth, went to grad school at Columbia and worked for CNN,

  2. May 6, 2020 11:31 am

    This sounds outstanding. I think so often we correlate good looks with success. 😦

  3. May 6, 2020 4:55 pm

    Thanks for drawing attention to this, not a title which would have drawn my attention as a matter of course. Though I’m intrigued I’m not sure I’d ever round to this, sadly.

    • May 6, 2020 4:58 pm

      I might not have noticed it except for the Dartmouth connection to another friend of mine. It’s interesting how it starts out like chick lit and then takes you deeper than you might expect.

  4. May 6, 2020 5:03 pm

    I need to put If I Had Your Face on my list. I’ve heard about it from a number of people now.

    • May 6, 2020 5:12 pm

      One of the things it makes you aware of is how much worse it could be for women than just having to put up with a vice president (and some other men of his generation) who won’t meet with a woman alone because he routinely sexualizes everything. You could be living in a country where women are left out of meetings because those meetings routinely take place at room salons.

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