Published: February 1, 2009
Publisher: Little, Brown for Young Readers
Overall Rating: 4/5
Born with a port-wine stain birthmark covering her entire right cheek, Terra Rose Cooper is ready to leave her stifling, small Washington town where everyone knows her for her face. With her critical, reproachful father and an obese mother who turns to food to deflect her father's verbal attacks, home life for Terra isn't so great either. Fueled by her artistic desires, she plans to escape to an East Coast college, thinking this is her true path. When her father intercepts her acceptance letter, Terra is pushed off-course, and she is forced to confront her deepest insecurities. After an ironically fortuitous car accident, Terra meets Jacob, a handsome but odd goth Chinese boy who was adopted from China as a toddler. Jacob immediately understands Terra's battle with feeling different. When Terra's older brother invites her and her mother to visit him in Shanghai, Jacob and his mother also join them on their journey, where they all not only confront the truth about themselves, but also realize their own true beauty. North of Beautiful is the engaging third YA novel by Justina Chen Headley. This is a gorgeously-written, compelling book featuring universal themes of defining true beauty, family bonds, personal strength, and love.
There are so many things I enjoyed about this book. I guess I'll start with the cover. I think it depicts this book perfectly. Terra is blonde and beautiful, but is embarrassed by the right side of her face because of a huge port wine stain birthmark. Aside from it being perfect for the book, it's just...beautiful, and it's definitely something I would pick up in a book store.
I can relate to Terra to a certain degree. I have a rather large port wine stain birthmark near the middle of my back. It's ugly, and it looks like a giant bruise. When I was a kid, it covered my entire back. The difference between mine and Terra's is, all I have to do to cover mine is put a shirt on. The only time it's ever been questioned was by the school nurse, who while checking my spine for signs of scoliosis, quickly assumed I had been abused. Still, though mine is covered, I find myself thinking "I'd like to have a tattoo down my spine..those are cute." And then I realize.....right, birthmark. Scratch that.
Jacob. Oh, Jacob. Her (eventual) love interest is Asian, and I must say that is one thing I absolutely loved about this book! I don't feel like there is enough diversity in YA novels. There are very few authors that venture into other cultures, and it's always refreshing when one of them does. (Okay, and maybe I have a bit of an infatuation with certain Asian guys. coughJOHNCHOcough.) Oh, and he's extremely sweet, and the only person who has EVER understood Terra. Even her current boyfriend treats her body as a prize, but seems to see her face as a serious flaw. Jacob doesn't, and he definitely has his own little way of showing her that.
Terra's father is a douche. Justina Chen Headley did a fantastic job of creating him, because I seriously cringed anytime he came into the picture. He is a miserable, miserable man who has every intention of making everyone around him miserable too. And boy is he successful. His douchebaggery is actually pretty subtle, which makes me applaud the author even more, because such subtle insults had me infuriated at times.
I gave the book four stars instead of five, because there were times when I got bored. It goes from fantastic to too much narrative, and back again. Over and over. Some of the things in the book, I just didn't feel needed to be there.
Terra's Mother takes a journey in the book as well, and hers is nearly as engaging as Terra's.
In Terra's trip to China, she takes a beautiful detour to self-appreciation, finally realizing what True Beauty is, and falling in love along the way. This isn't one of your boring "love yourself for who you are" clichés. Terra is a character all her own, as is her story.
"So", he asked, "you going to do it?"
"Why not what?"
"Why not fix your face?"
--Exchange between Terra and Erik
"You know, I don't even see your birthmark anymore," he said to me, tracing the ragged edges of my port-wine stain beneath my makeup with the tip of his finger. I shivered. "Which makes me sad," he continued, "because it looks like Bhutan. That's the one place in the world I've really wanted to see."
"Your face will never change. You've got to know that, correct?".........
"But Dad"--finally, I looked at him face full-on--"Dad, I have nothing to hide."
---Terra and her father.