57 pages 1 hour read

Frances Cha

If I Had Your Face

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Frances Cha’s debut novel If I Had Your Face follows four young women in South Korea as they navigate the intense social pressures caused by their genders and socio-economic status. Cha is a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, using her experiences in South Korea to inspire her two novels If I Had Your Face and The Twin Goblins. Published in 2020, If I Had Your Face was well-received by critics and is widely regarded as a work of literary fiction. The novel discusses the complex relationship between women and restrictive beauty standards, exploring the role of women within South Korean society and how a person’s perception of events is often different from reality.

This guide refers to the 2021 Ballantine paperback edition.

Content Warning: If I Had Your Face discusses body dysmorphia, suicide, child abuse, sexual assault, violence, and miscarriage.

Plot Summary

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is an intricate and thought-provoking novel set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea. The story follows the lives of four women who navigate the patriarchal and appearance-obsessed society they live in.

The first protagonist is Ara, a young hair stylist working at a high-end salon frequented by Seoul’s elite who is unable to speak after a traumatic event. She lives in a small apartment with three other women, dreaming of meeting her idol, Taein from the K-Pop band Crown. Another protagonist, Kyuri, is described as a beautiful young woman who works as a room salon girl, entertaining wealthy men in private rooms at an elite establishment. Kyuri struggles to come to terms with the demands of her career and the perception of it by others. A third protagonist, Miho, is a talented artist who studied abroad in New York and is grieving the loss of her friend Ruby who died by suicide. She struggles to navigate her relationship with her wealthy boyfriend Hanbin. The fourth protagonist, Wonna, is a married young woman who desperately wants to have a child but is experiencing infertility. The pressure exerted by her husband and society’s expectations threatens to consume her.

Each of the women grapples with their desires and the constraints that society places upon them as women, and they each react in their own ways. Ara, whose family wants her to find a man who will care for her, dives headfirst into her obsession with a K-Pop idol named Taein. She relies on the parasocial, or imagined, relationship that she forms with Taein to cope with her day-to-day life. Her story leads up to the moment that she is finally able to meet Taein in-person and the resulting fallout of his not acknowledging her.

Kyuri has begun working in a “10 Percent,” a room salon that hires only the “top 10%” most beautiful women to entertain their clients. One of Kyuri’s regular clients, Bruce, gets engaged and slowly stops coming to the room salon. Kyuri becomes upset by the sudden lack of contact, and she shows up at a meeting between Bruce’s family and his fiancée’s. This decision leads to Kyuri being punished at work and forced to work harder to pay off her debt to the room salon’s madam. By the end of the novel, Kyuri decides to apply for a job at the clinic that she had all her cosmetic procedures completed by, and she is more optimistic about the future.

Miho is an artist who moves back to Seoul after getting her degree from an art school in New York. During her time in college, Miho becomes close friends with a wealthy girl named Ruby and her boyfriend Hanbin. When Ruby suddenly dies by suicide, Miho is distraught and eventually falls in love with Hanbin. For his role, Hanbin seems to be a very loving and attentive boyfriend; he is the son of a well-known actress turned art dealer and a chaebol, the heir to a large company. Miho discovers that Hanbin is cheating on her with one of Kyuri’s friends and that he is going to be married to another girl some time in the following year. Angered by Hanbin’s lies, Miho vows to take advantage of Hanbin’s wealth and connections for the remainder of their relationship.

Wonna is in a loveless marriage of convenience. She married her husband for the sole reason that his mother is deceased, and she finds herself resenting him more every day. Wonna finds herself pregnant for the fourth time and is terrified; all three of her prior pregnancies have ended in miscarriage. Wonna spends her days fearful of the future and desiring to provide for her child. She and her husband are struggling financially, and Wonna worries about how they will be able to afford to care for their child. When Wonna enters into her second trimester, the time comes to discuss with her manager about taking maternity leave. Wonna’s manager makes it clear that she doesn’t want her to take any leave, and if she requests more than three months of leave, she will fire Wonna. Distraught, Wonna returns home and discovers that her husband was fired from his job two months prior and had been lying to her. She kicks him out of their apartment and begins to feel immense pains in her abdomen. She begins screaming in pain, and Ara and Miho come to make sure that she is okay.

Days later, all four of the women, in the midst of their own personal conflicts, share a meal in solidarity. While each of them has different visions for what the future holds, they live in the present, enjoying each other’s company and support.

If I Had Your Face explores the lives of women in contemporary Seoul, exposing the harsh consequences of gender inequality and social pressure. It celebrates the resilience and the strength of friendship between women who come together to defy societal expectations in solidarity.