Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you’d probably think I was perfect.
After sixteen years, Terra Rose Cooper has mastered the fine art of hiding the cracks in the facade of her perfect life. Concealer and foundation quickly camouflage the port-wine stain on Terra’s cheek. A rigorous exercise regimen gives Terra control over her body that she never had over her face. It also makes sure her body is one that her boyfriend, a beautiful and popular jock himself, will definitely appreciate.
It’s harder to hide her family’s flaws; her father’s denigrating comments, her mother’s compulsive baking (and eating), the flight of her older brothers’ away from the family–and from their little sister. Terra is so focused on her plan to finish high school early and flee to an East Coast college that, sometimes, it’s easy to forget that she bears marks from the household as clear as any birthmark.
Terra’s dream of a fresh start as far away from her small town Washington life as possible is dashed when her father vetoes her escape plan. Terra’s one true refuge is in her art. While working on her collages, Terra doesn’t have to think about her father or worry about protecting her mother, she has the freedom not yet afforded by her real life.
Things begin to change when Terra and her mother (almost literally) run into Jacob and his family. At first it seems like Terra wouldn’t have anything in common with this sophisticated Goth boy who has found his way into her small town. Yet, he understands Terra in a way that no one ever has. Their chance meeting sets Terra on an unexpected path and helps her understand that you need to open your eyes before you can really see true beauty, in the eyes of the beholder or otherwise in North of Beautiful (2009) by Justina Chen.
Not to be redundant, but North of Beautiful is a beautiful book. The cover design by Saho Fujii is perfect and truly encompasses the story and Terra’s character. The book design itself capitalized on the compass rose of the cover and works well with the story (broken into three parts each with cartographic terminology for a name–chapters also have similar names). Justina Chen Headley artfully blends Terra’s artistic personality with her background knowledge of cartography and maps, gained from her father and central to the plot, to create a uniquely informative and engaging narrative.
This book is a love story on many levels. First, in the conventional boy-meets-girl sense of the term. This novel is also Terra’s love story with herself as she learns to love herself and come to terms with her birthmark. But, for me, the big event in North of Beautiful was the fact that this was a love story about a mother and daughter.
Terra and her mother Lois are not close at the beginning of the novel. Terra can’t stand her mother’s quiet complacence to her father’s verbal abuse and criticisms. Worse, Terra feels sure that Lois has nothing useful to share with her. As the story progresses and Terra and Lois find themselves on a life-changing journey, Terra begins to see her mother in a new light and with a new respect.
North of Beautiful is, in fact, dedicated to the author’s own mother and with good reason. It is so easy to write books for teens that are depopulated of adults and feature parents in only brief appearances. Here, happily, that is not the case. Aside from Terra, Lois is arguably one of the most important characters in the entire story. Watching the healing process as Terra and Lois reconnect also made me feel incredibly grateful for and proud of my own mom.
Ultimately, aside from being one of my favorite books of 2009 (s0 far), North of Beautiful was incredibly uplifting. The beginning of the novel is not always easy to read. Terra’s home life is anything but happy, and Headley tackles the issue of verbal abuse (abuse without the telltale blows or shouts) head on. But that isn’t the main event here. Instead, the story is about how Terra and her mother move past that and build themselves back up. I’ll say it again, the story here was beautiful, and even I dare say life-affirming. Like Terra herself, readers will put down this book with a whole new outlook on . . . everything.
(Also, if you’ve read Headley’s other novels you might recognize some characters who make cameo appearances here!)
Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, Miss Smithers by Susan Juby, Fix by Leslie Margolis, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee