In brief: Four women are trying to keep their heads above water in their competitive lives in Seoul.
The good: Different setting, different troubles.
The not-so-good: Wasn’t as shocking as other reviews had led me to believe.
Why I chose it: Read many excellent reviews.
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Setting: Mainly Seoul, South Korea
Rating: 8 out of 10
If I Had Your Face is a book I saw on many ‘best of 2020’ lists by people whose bookish opinions I respect. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to read, so I thought I’d try this. Then a snap lockdown occurred and I lost interest in reading anything except news for a couple of days. Coming back to this book was like reuniting with someone from ‘before’ with a sense of familiarity. While I enjoyed it, I didn’t spectacularly fall in love. There was a lot of characters and a lot to get through, so some parts of the plot didn’t get as much page time as I’d like.
Set in South Korea, the book is about four women in live in the same apartment building in Seoul. Three are single and good friends and the fourth is married and pregnant. Wonna has her own problems with her workplace and her husband and doesn’t begin to interact with the others until a moment of need later in the book. Kyuri works as a room girl at a top room salon – kind of like a hard drinking geisha meets top call girl. She’s worked very hard to get where she is, including extensive plastic surgery but she learns that it’s tough to be a real person in her job. Miho is an orphan whose artistic skills have taken her to New York and back. She now has a wealthy boyfriend and her own studio, but at what cost? Ara is a hairdresser who is mute and deeply into a particular K-Pop artist. There is also Sujin, Ara’s flatmate and old friend who wants to become a room girl.
In this frantic world, it’s all about money and beauty. You can never have too much of either. But it’s also about class and where you come from. None of the women have the required pedigree to be part of the true top class but for some of them, they are trying to reach it through work or association. There is also a darker side of violence between teenagers and later, between grown women. Even when there is no physical violence on the page, there is always an eerie threat lurking in the background. Seoul is painted as a ruthless city where everyone is trying to be richer, smarter and more beautiful in a particular kind of way. Even Miho is told not to cut her hair as she’s the poster girl for the university her studio is at. The only thing that defies the narrow boundaries of what is acceptable is the friendship between the women. They’ve all been through a lot, either alone or together, and they will fight to keep each other’s heads above water.
If I Had Your Face is much more character driven than plot driven. It’s like this is an episode of the characters’ lives the reader has been invited to watch for a certain period of time. Some plot threads are not tied up in as much detail as others Overall the message of a toxic culture comes through strongly, as does the importance of having friends who keep it real.