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Contemporary Fiction With A Feel of K-Drama: A Review of If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Throughout this past year, while stuck inside during the pandemic lockdown, I had two things that kept me sane- books and K-drama (short for a Korean drama TV series). When I wasn't reading book after book, I would binge watch K-dramas endlessly, marveling at how much I didn't know about Korean culture, while enjoying a high quality escapist activity from the safety of my couch.

I started watching them at the recommendation of one of my go-to advisors- Mel from Mel's Bookland Adventures (please check out her recently created blog). She has been long touting the remarkable storytelling of K-dramas, and I finally decided to try one when I was feeling a bit too tired to focus on reading. I started with Itaewon Class on Netflix, having no idea what I was in for. Soon I was hooked, cycling through these exceptional series: Crash Landing On You; My Mister; Goblin/Guardian:The Lonely and Great God; Mister Sunshine; That Winter, The Wind Blows; etc.

What I have discovered in the process of watching a good K-drama series is the storytelling is on another level. There is a progression of the plot that you can trust as a viewer. You aren't going to get the familiar American series debacle where the writers started without a definite ending in mind, leaving the series to meander until it's obvious that no one know how to land the plane, even if they wanted to. (I'm looking at you-Lost, The X Files, Twin Peaks, etc.) Instead, with a good K-drama, the construction is tightly crafted with unexpected twists and turns along the way but you can have confidence that it will end in a place that offers a satisfying (sometimes heartbreaking) conclusion.

I have found that it will take a bit to get into the swing of things with a new K-drama series. I find that I can't truly judge if I am going to like it or not until after the third episode, because that is when the first big switch tends to happen. What can start off seemingly silly or superficial can deepen and shock you four episodes in.

But the thing I love most in a solid K-drama is the rich, and deep character development. I often marvel at the story arcs of so many characters over the course of a series. And it doesn't matter what genre it is: scifi, family drama, suspense, revenge, mystery, romance, historical- a sense of community is almost always at the core. It shows the values of the culture where the individual is not as important as the community and family ties. That is where the heart of K-drama lies.

So how does this relate to If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha?

As I spent time with this story (I went back and forth between the physical and the audio version), I couldn't help but be reminded of the best kinds of K-dramas in terms of structure, plot and characters. I ignored this comparison at first because it seemed so simplistic a point of reference. But I kept seeing stylistic parallels. At the very beginning, the book felt a bit superficial with a detailed conversation of all the plastic surgery "needed" to get and keep a lucrative job to land a rich man. I almost abandoned it, but like the start of a new series, I had to get in a bit more to see if it would give me a twist or something unexpected. So I stayed with it and it quickly started to pique my interest with the introduction of different women's voices and the overall flow of the writing. The themes were also consistent with some of my favorite shows- the ones where the odds of success are always low for those not born into rich families, where women lack safety nets and are expected to take a backseat to their male colleagues, brothers, fellow students, bosses and husbands. It was clear that the plot was going to provide the types of twists and turns that are both unexpected and heartbreaking in their consequences for these women, I just needed to get a little deeper in and the story would deepen.

Frances Cha sets this story in an office-tel in current day Seoul, Korea. (I was not familiar with the term- an office-tel is a mixed use building that has commercial spaces combined with housing in the same structure.) One by one, we meet four women who live here: Kyuri is a stunningly gorgeous woman who entertains groups of white collar working men in what is known as a "room salon", Miho is an artist who shares an apartment with her, Arais a deaf hairstylist living down the hall, and below them is Wonna who is newly married and wants to have a child but is struggling with the fear of having a baby when they make so little money.

We follow each of these women in alternating chapters, spending enough time with each to get their specific stories. We see the themes that run through many of their lives- expectations of beauty and maintaining a youthful vivacity, constant fears of losing their tenuous holds on their jobs because Seoul is such an expensive city to try to get ahead in, the duplicity of so many of the romantic relationships around them (maybe theirs, too?), and no familial support to fall back on emotionally or financially. The writing is episodic with frequent breaks in the page layout, filled with dialog, and your eyes just fly through the page. The audio is narrated by several different voice actors, making it clear as we move from one character to another through the book.

The magic of this book is not just that it rings so true to what I have been watching from K-drama set in Seoul for a year solid, but that it's also a debut novel. She has managed the balancing act of bringing so many voices to the forefront, making each story compelling, and weaving these women's paths together in such a way that she creates a sense of community in front of our very eyes. She has brought this very utilitarian building to life through these women. It was a joy to witness.

She is an author to watch. Given how much I enjoyed this book, I will look forward to seeing what she does next as an author.


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