“I am so overwhelmingly jealous of anyone who gets to read this for the first time, because you bitches are lucky enough to experience the magic of Cha’s writing and the vivid world she has created.”
I’m superficial as hell, so I love judging a book by its cover, and when I say this one delivers, it DELIVERS. In truth, I’ve actually read this novel twice, simply because I love the characters so dearly. I usually describe this book as my own A LITTLE LIFE, the bestselling book by Hanya Yanagahara.
Frances Cha’s debut novel is a glittering exploration of cut-throat competition to financially thrive in the city of Seoul, South Korea, alongside ever evolving beauty standards, classism, poverty, kpop idols, and slowburn bonding between four women living in the same apartment complex.
The novel explores the lives and perspectives of four women. We have Kyuri, a beautiful young woman who has worked herself to the bone in order to be employed at an exclusive room salon – where wealthy men are entertained by women like her for hours on end; her flatmate Miho, a young artist, who won a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York, dating one of Seoul’s wealthiest elite and becoming entangled in their world; Ara, a mute hairdresser recovering from her past traumas and escapes her parents pressures of seeing her married by immersing herself with her deep infatuation with a k-pop idol; and Wonna, their pregnant neighbour who is struggling to figure out how she can afford to raise a child.
Are you sold? ‘Cause I fucking was. A novel that investigates how the traditions of nuclear families, and exploitative and misogynistic capitalist structures function to the detriment of women, whilst also exploring said women in an up close, unflinching manner is my vaccine.
The cherry on top is that any male characters are so comically mediocre that you’ll forget their names after turning the page.
Inject, and I cannot stress this enough, all of it.
“Hotties, if you’re like me, a constant fear will niggle in the pit of your stomach.”
With the setting of Korea comes the glaring fact about their rising statistics of plastic surgery among young women, and the financial debt it places on those who come from less financially stable backgrounds trying to excel in careers. Kyuri is one of these women; beautiful and at the peak of her career – but that’s the most terrifying part of it. Kyuri is no stranger to understanding how a woman’s age can lessen their value in her world, and despite her actions sometimes being questionable it elicits feelings of empathy from readers.
It would have been easy for any other author to have depicted Kyuri as vapid and self-absorbed. Her beauty and career increases a feeling of self importance, but Cha rips apart the surface and pours out a plethora of feelings, emotions and struggles that have gotten Kyuri to where she is. Her position has been hard earned, and angeringly so for the reader, because it shouldn’t have been this hard for her.
Hotties, if you’re like me, a constant fear will niggle in the pit of your stomach as you dread the day where her employers may consider her ‘too old’ for the room salon. Because what comes next?
“I became protective of Miho, and not in the sense where I viewed her as vulnerable or helpless to danger, but instead so fiercely aggressive towards anyone who may disturb her peace.”
Miho – who is my personal favourite – is a young woman, orphaned from a young age, only beginning to understand the full scope of wealth that others have been born into. From the moment she is plunged into the world of the Korean heirs and heiresses – as a result of earning a scholarship to a New York Art school – she is bombarded with the frivolous spending and selfishness of those around her.
Miho’s determination to ‘make it’ on her own sees her through to her first art exhibition, intent on never relying on her chaebol heir (Korean for a wealthy family/business) boyfriend to support her in any shape or form. On the surface he appears doting and attentive, so completely besotted with Miho that he could almost convince readers he has an intent to marry her. I don’t trust men, though – even if you looked like Pedro Pascal and proposed to me – and Miho is a woman who’s intelligence has been forged through the experiences she’s endured throughout her life. I’m as proud of her as a parent who’s told their child is excelling every class at school.
From the first time I met Miho I became protective of her, and not in the sense where I viewed her as vulnerable or helpless to danger, but instead so fiercely aggressive towards anyone who may disturb her peace. I’ll fight anyone for her, including you lot reading this.
I’ll be cheering for her to make her boyfriend’s pockets hurt until he goes bankrupt.
“I don’t care what crimes this babe is accused of committing, she’s innocent. Even if she’s guilty, she’s innocent. That is the level of devotion Frances Cha elicits from me throughout Ara’s chapters.”
Now Ara, man Ara. Imagine a fuckboy saying ‘wooooooooow’ in that unnecessarily extended way that they do, that’s how I reacted about Ara. We love an unhinged queen!
As literally everyone in the world says; looks can be deceiving, and Ara is the physical manifestation of that saying. Her muteness and general soft demeanour serve as an excellent camouflage in a society that loves to infantilise women, and Ara utilises this in a way I fully admire. Though it is never unprovoked, Ara’s violence is searing and terrifying, only ever drawn out when others attempt to take advantage of her obedience or muteness.
I don’t care what crimes this babe is accused of committing, she’s innocent. Even if she’s guilty, she’s innocent. That is the level of devotion Frances Cha elicits from me throughout Ara’s chapters, and emphasises that although Ara may be a mute she is not vulnerable. She is rough around the edges, but said edges are invisible to the naked eye.
Through Wonna’s story the reader is given a glimpse of the obscene workplace misogyny that women experience. Wonna’s pregnancy does come with joy, but also fear, as she must inevitably take maternity leave in order to care for her child. Her pregnancy is met with distaste from her employers, and as well as battling ageism she is constantly faced with misogyny. The financial burden of raising a child weighs heavily on Wonna, and only becomes worse as her husband loses his job.
Honestly, what is he even good for?!
Any loneliness Wonna may have felt is eventually doused out by the meeting of these four women, all varying in life and experiences, but sharing such a tender bond. My heart swelled in a way that only is evoked from authors who are women. Who understand the complexities and intimacy of female bonds, who have depicted it with such stunning accuracy that I immediately feel part of it. Cha has made this a slowburn in her book; developing it slowly, inch by inch, in a way where in real life you one day realise that you cannot live without this person. You don’t remember when it became like this, or how you got to this point, but you know that they’re meant to be part of your life.
I am so overwhelmingly jealous of anyone who gets to read this for the first time, because you bitches are lucky enough to experience the magic of Cha’s writing and the vivid world she has created.
Get in, loser, we’re stanning Frances Cha.
Soraya Bouazzaoui is Aurelia’s Literal Hotties columnist which whilst never giving too much away, focuses on reviews and recommendations of titles by women of colour, both fiction and non-fiction. @halalltakeaway
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