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North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Posted by Sherry on 6/9/2009 in General, Young Adult Fiction |

It could be just another YA “problem novel”: girl with a birthmark on her face and a domineering, verbally abusive father learns to accept herself. End of story.

However, North of Beautiful transcends the problem-of-the-week genre, and it’s a truly beautiful novel. The strength of the book is in its treatment of relationships and family dynamics. Terra Cooper, the protagonist of the novel, isn’t just a girl with low self esteem because of her facial disfigurement and her controlling dad. Although she is that, Terra is much more complicated than that stereotype would indicate. She’s her mom’s rescuer, until she realizes that her mom has been rescuing Terra all her life. She’s a teenage girl in love, but she’s not sure which guy she’s in love with. She’s an artist if she can figure out what True Beauty really is. She’s a mapmaker, and a world traveller, and a master of camouflage.

The only problem I had with this novel, and it may be a reader problem rather than an issue with the novel itself, is that I got lost a few times with some transitions that seemed a bit abrupt. Sometimes I had to re-read a few paragraphs to see whether I was in the past or the present because I didn’t get enough clues to know when the transitions were taking place. This disorientation happened to me mostly in the first part of the novel, so maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention and my focus improved later.

Even if the writing was really uneven at the beginning of the novel, it’s worth the effort. Terra’s continuing insights into herself and her family members and her friends are worthy of an artist. I wanted to see one of Terra’s collages, buy one, because they became so real to me while reading the story. I recommend this one for young adults and adults who are interested in thinking about our society’s concepts of beauty and the value of physical beauty. There’s some mild sexual content, but it’s not gratuitous, but rather integral to the character development.

Other bloggers review North of Beautiful:

Becky’s Book Reviews: “The book is complex–so many layers of life, of interests, of passions, of intense relationships. And life is complex. So it’s authentic enough there. And the plot–in its details–isn’t typical at all. Terra’s mother and Jacob’s mother are two of the main characters of the book. How often does one mom–let alone two moms–play an important role in book? (This emphasis on moms was something I liked about the book, too, probably because I am the age of those moms in the book.)

Heather at What Was I Reading?: “I liked the plot of this story, and that’s what kept me reading. Although I’d read reviews of this book and pretty much knew straight away (knowing what I knew of the long-distance trip that happened with Terra and some other peeps), I still liked where the story was going well enough to keep reading. I guess I’m kind of a sucker for stories of self-discovery, even when the self-discovery is over-wrought and you see it coming a mile away.”

Tarie interviews Justina Chen Headley at Into the Wardrobe.

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