As he continued to stare, I wanted to point to my cheek and remind him, But you were the one who wanted this, remember? You’re the one who asked-and I repeat-Why not fix your face?
– Front Flap
North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
North of Beautiful is the story of a girl, Terra. From the back, you’d think she was perfect– perfect hair, perfect body, perfect boyfriend, perfect everything. Even her grades are good. However, look her in the face and you’ll see something else entirely: a girl with a birthmark that destroys her otherwise beautiful face.
Or does it?
This book was Terra’s journey to find exactly where True Beauty was in the world. “What?” you ask. “What the heck is True Beauty?” Well, as Terra, the narrator, explained to me, there is the north, the one that changes with the earth. And then there is the True North, constant and forever. And just like the north, there is a beauty that changes, and beauty that just is– True Beauty.
For all her life, Terra has been burdened by her stain. She’s extremely self-conscious about it. Every treatment she’s tried for it has failed. To compensate, she makes sure that its hidden by makeup at all times and she keeps her body in perfect shape.
And her birthmark isn’t her only problem. She’s also got an awful dad. He’s constantly berating his family, from Terra’s mom, to her brothers and even Terra herself. They’re tied to him because he pays the bills and because he’s never hit them. And even though Terra and her family is hurt over and over again by his verbal abuse, they are stuck with him.
But Terra’s got a plan. She’s going to graduate early and get as far away from Washington as she can– an East Coast college it is for her. Everything was planned and ready until one icy day in winter. On the way back from trying yet another laser treatment for her birthmark, Terra gets into a car accident. And this is where her whole life changes. Out of the car pops an exuberant woman (who quickly bonds with Terra’s mother) and a young boy named Jacob who doesn’t just bond with Terra, but change the whole direction of her life.
So how cliché does this book sound to you? Ugly girl meets a boy and everything changes, blah, blah, blah, right?
Well, I thought it was going to be like that. I borrowed it on a whim. I started reading it– and kept reading it all day. It’s not like it was action-packed or anything. It was a slower book, a stroll down a country lane. But Terra was very intriguing in ways I wasn’t expecting.
First, she wasn’t whinny. She’s got her father and her birthmark, but she doesn’t spend excess amounts of time wallowing and complaining. She gets on with her life. Of course, she has her low times, where she feels ugly and worthless, but I found those times particularly moving and well written. It’s one of those books where you really feel for the person. I think people who aren’t totally confident with themselves will really find Terra attractive. The way she handles things are different. No loud arguments or rash actions. She’s logical and well planned. Which in a way made my heart bled for her more than if she was a drama queen.
I think that’s because Terra faces her problems in a very real manner. Also, her problems are put to light in a very real way as well. Like her father. Not all abuse is physical and I really, really, really, hated her dad. But Terra wasn’t biased. She didn’t call him names. She just told the facts, and they were simply awful.
Second, the romance wasn’t cheesy. Really. I actually thought Jacob and Terra had great chemistry. No pinning. No silliness. No stupid flirty moments when people just so conveniently tumble, or touch or whatever. They met, they hit it off really well and then Terra started to like him. And for a very good reason too. Unlike her boyfriend, Erik who only liked her for her body, Jacob liked her for her whole self– birthmark included.
What really made this romance work for me was that Jacob never really had to come out and say that he liked all of her. He showed it. I know that sounds weird but like I said, the chemistry between these two characters was so well written, it was like they were acting out the scenes before me. They didn’t have to say things out loud. You just kind of knew.
And finally, third, the book was very well written. Terra is a great narrator. She’s funny at the right times, serious when it matters. Her story is unique in many ways. I don’t think I really made that clear, but this isn’t like other find-out-where-you-belong romances that I’ve read. It’s special.
I think a large part of that was the fact that even though Jacob was “goth” to begin with (like all black clothes and stuff), he completely changed his look to “surfer,” explaining that it was all just costume. People used to stare at him (because he was adopted so he looked out of place with his family) and he wanted to determine the terms on which they stared.
I liked this because a lot of the time when authors write about certain cliques, it comes off as cliché. As if the world is really like that. Most of the time people try to stand out just for the sake of being different. And this broke that cliché– because Jacob wasn’t being a follower. He was just doing his own thing because he felt like it.
The other characters– good, bad, ambiguous, exuberant– they were all very well done too. Like I said, Terra made me hate her dad, love Jacob, and cry for her mom. Each person was crafted with a unique personality and were surprisingly human. They had their flaws and their strong-points. They grow and change. It’s one of those books where you decide good and bad on your own. Terra just gives you the facts.
Back to the writing now. The beginning half of the book is cozy and sad, the second half, which takes place in China, is exotic and eye-opening. I could tell that the story was well researched. The author knows what she’s talking about when she describes Shanghai. Actually, it was so well done that now I really want to go to China.
Anyways, there was a scene so wonderfully written, so deeply moving I felt like crying after reading it. It takes place in an orphange in China, when Terra sees a young girl with a port-wine stain (the same type she has). The emotion put into that scene was amazing. As an imperfect human being, it really struck home with me and I felt strangely empowered after reading it. As if Terra had convinced me that I was beautiful too.
So my final thoughts? The pacing was good, the ending satisfying. Everything flowed very nicely, even though some events weren’t told chronologically. I found the characters intriguing and the story delightful. The only bad part was a few awkwardly worded sentences.
I read this book in a day and it was definitely time well spent. Mothers, buy this for your kids. They’ll feel wonderful after reading it. I think anyone will, actually. In a way, the book was a like a compass, pointing every person towards True Beauty, saying “Look, look. There it is. That is where you are.”
0. Couldn’t get past chapter one for fear of wanting to kill myself. Book induced suicide…
1: Yuck. Ew. Below Average. Probably didn’t even read the middle and skipped to the end.
2. Ok. Would’ve been better if I’d written the ending and everything else.
3. Not bad at all. Very enjoyable. Quite nice. Recommendable.
4. My kind of book. Near ideal, but something was a little off (annoying names, bad ending, that sort of thing).
5. WOW. Makes me wonder why people watch T.V when this is out there. Really liked it. Don’t expect to see this often.
6 and above. What I want my book to be.