North of Beautiful
by Justina Chen Headley
There must be a few times in life when you stand at a precipice of a decision. When you know there will forever be a Before and an After. Mom’s life was twice marked: Before Dad, After Dad. Before her sister’s death and After. I knew there would be no turning back if I designated this moment as my own Prime Meridian from which everything else would be measured.
What is the definition of true beauty? Without knowing it, Terra Cooper is on a search to find out the answer to this very question. Terra has long been thought of as beautiful – except for the prominent port-wine stain that covers part of her face. Long defined by this birthmark and belittled by her cartographer father, Terra and her mother’s world is thrown into a different direction when they meet Jacob, an adopted Asian teen who had a cleft palate as a child, and his mother. Soon Terra and her mother find themselves on a trip to China and a journey to map out and reclaim their lives.
I first heard of Justina Chen Headley during a Blog Hop in which a blogger recommended her as an author she wished more people knew about. I was intrigued and decided to purchase a book of hers called North of Beautiful. I was blown away and now am firmly on the Justina Chen Headley train. North of Beautiful was one of the most beautiful, well-crafted, meaningful books I have ever read. In fact, it has even earned a spot in my Top 10 List of all-time favorite books which I will be updating soon.
There are so many things that I love about this book – the first being the absolutely wonderful writing. Headley has a real knack for being able to put feelings and truth into her writing – her writing is so authentically real, and the dialogue is perfectly crafted.
The characters of Terra and Jacob, as well as the secondary characters, are so dimensional and well-rounded. Each has an amazing amount of depth – from Terra’s artwork, obsession with working out, relationship with her best friend and her mother, and her need to get away to Jacob’s love of geocaching, his search for his roots in Asia and his ability to make others see themselves differently. Even Terra’s father, who is emotionally abusive, has many layers and is never reduced to a stereotype.
The trip to China that Terra, Jacob and their mothers take was so fun to read about – the sights, smells, experiences, food, and people were described in such detail that you feel you are right there with them. You can tell that Headley has first-hand knowledge of China and brings that to the story. I love when authors use travel to allow characters to learn something new about themselves as they experience a new place or culture.
The metaphors of maps and map-making were skillfully woven throughout the story elevating this novel to an even higher level of excellence. It it is a novel that will truly get you thinking about what true beauty is and how you can find it in yourself. I would recommend this novel to anyone but especially to those who love the beautiful realism found in Melina Marchetta and Jennifer Donnelly’s stories. If I was a high school teacher, I would definitely want to have all of my students read and experience this novel.
A unique, brilliant story, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley gets my highest recommendation. I absolutely adore this book and its amazing message.
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Age Recommendation: 14 and up
Rating: 5/5 (will be a new addition to my Top 10 Favorites list)