North of Beautiful (Stephanie)

When I was contacted by a publicist to receive an ARC of North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley (384 pgs, Little, Brown Young Readers, 2009), I was really excited. I love a good YA book, and this one was extremely good.

Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you’d probably think I was perfect. I’m tall, but not too tall, with a ballerina’s long legs and longish neck. My hair is naturally platinum blond, the kind that curls when I want it to and cascades behind my back in one sleek line when I don’t. While my face couldn’t launch a thousand ships, it has the power to make any stranger whip around for a second look. Trust me, this mixture of curiosity and revulsion is nothing Helen of Troy would ever have encountered. Please don’t get me wrong: I’ve got all the prerequisite parts — and in all the right numbers, too: one nose, two eyes, and twenty-four teeth that add to to not a bad smile. But who notices pearly whites when a red-stained birthmark stretches across the broad plain of my cheek?

Terra Cooper is about to complete high school in three years. She smart, ambitious and even though she doesn’t realize it, an extremely talented artist. But Terra has spent her entire life hiding behind a port-wine stain birthmark. Years of laser treatments and creams have done nothing to diminish it, and she now wears a “mask” of cover-up so she can feel normal.

But Terra’s reasons for wanting to complete high school so fast doesn’t have as much to do with her birthmark as it does getting away from home. She wants to attend college as far from home as possible. Across the country in fact. Her father, a disgraced cartographer has made her life a living hell. He is mean as a snake, constantly criticizing every move she makes. But it’s not just Terra that lives in constant fear from her father. It’s the entire family. Both Terra’s brothers have “escaped”. Her oldest brother, Merc is now a lawyer in China. He doesn’t ever call or write. And Claudius is now in college, and is always “too busy” to come home. Terra’s mother, who takes most of the brow-beating, turns to food to quell the harshness that Grant constantly doles out. And she has gained an enormous amount of weight. It’s a viscous circle for her mother. Grant constantly tells her she’s fat, and yet she turns to food to blot out the pain.

On a trip home from yet another doctor’s appointment, Terra and her mom, stop for coffee, and get into an auto accident. It’s here they meet the Fremont’s. Norah, the gorgeous coffee-buyer from Seattle and her adopted son from China, Jacob. Although Norah seems to have it all: money, beauty, a high-power job — looks can be deceiving. Her husband has just left her for a much younger woman. When an unlikely friendship is formed between the mothers, Terra and Jacob start spending time together. And it’s through Jacob that Terra starts to question everything she has ever thought the word “beauty” meant.

Justina Chen Headley has taken a pretty big leap with this book. In today’s world when young girls are bombarded with images of what is deemed “beautiful”, Headley has tried to re-write the definition. And it’s admirable. I know how young girls think. I remember what it was like growing up. I was the “smart” girl in my group. Definitely not one of the “beautiful” people. It’s hard on young girls when the barrage of the media defines super-model looks as beauty. And even though we have all heard that true beauty is on the inside, it doesn’t make it any easier to understand. And that is the lesson this book tries to convey.

At times heartbreaking, North of Beautiful is a wonderful book. Grant comes across as such a horrible person, it’s hard to feel anything for him but revulsion. Any father that would deem to tell his own daughter how ugly she is isn’t worth anything in my book. And his constant degrading comments to his wife just makes me cringe.

But read on a little farther and you find that both Terra and her mom, with a little help from the Freemont’s, come to grip with who they really are. The four take a trip to China…and it’s certainly a trip of self-discovery. The transformation is fantastic. This book is a must-read for any person who has ever felt they didn’t quite muster up to standard. For anyone who had ever felt they were far from perfect. Personally, a book like this should be a must read for every teenage girl. Justina Chen Headley has created some unique characters to which we can all relate. And I, for one, am certainly glad to say I read it! 4.5/5

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