Terra Firma

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Number of pages: 373
My copy: paperback, bought from Fully Booked

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?

It’s hard not to notice Terra Cooper.

She’s tall, blond, and has an enviable body. But with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably “flawed” face. Terra secretly plans to leave her stifling small town in the Northwest and escape to an East Coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. When an unexpected collision puts Terra directly in Jacob’s path, the handsome but quirky Goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about herself and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. With her carefully laid plans disrupted, will Terra be able to find her true path?

Written in lively, artful prose, award-winning author Justina Chen Headley has woven together a powerful novel about a fractured family, falling in love, travel, and the meaning of true beauty.

* * *

I’m a big reader (obviously), but there are certain books that I can say are my absolute favorites, ones that I would willingly read over and over again and bring with me to a deserted island, if given a choice. Some of them are This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti, The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen and probably Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

I’m happy to say that North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley just joined their ranks. :)

In this day and age, media plays a heavy influence in how one views beauty: one must be tall, thin, have straight hair, blemish-free and white skin. If you fail to meet any of these requirements, then sorry, you can’t be beautiful. A lot of girls suffer from low self-esteem back then, including me. I never really talked about it and I covered everything with laughter, but deep inside, I didn’t feel beautiful at all. Every other girl I know seems to be more beautiful than I am. I wasn’t thin enough, tall enough (human growth hormone, anyone?), fair skinned enough, pretty enough. I feel like being beautiful is a long shot.

That was how Terra felt, even if she possessed great body and great hair and the smarts to finish high school a year early. Despite all of these, Terra never thought of herself as beautiful because of one flaw: the port-wine birthmark the shape of Bhutan on her face. All she wanted to do was get out of the small town and make her own map at a faraway college — far away from the people who know her, especially far away from the control of her father, a disgraced cartographer.

Now if you’ll think about it, the search for true beauty is not a new story line. Other books might have mentioned it, had a story about it, but I think the beauty of North of Beautiful is that it really tackled the issue head on. Although Terra never called herself ugly outright, she admits to hiding behind a mask and falling under everyone’s expectations of her. She craved control, so she set out on a plan to follow her older brother’s footsteps and to be finally free of everything in her life. Of course, all her plans change when life throws her all kinds of things — like getting into a car crash, for instance — but that is really where her journey started.

This is another book with very strong characters, all of them somehow making a mark in me as I read it. Strong characters are easier to identify with, and could make even the most cliched story somehow work. They all had unique voices, and I can actually imagine them in the small town of Colville: from Terra’s dad and his condescending comments to Terra’s mom’s timidity to Jacob’s easy smile and funny quips. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more effective antagonist who uses words to abuse other people — I mean seriously, Terra’s dad definitely takes the cake. I can’t remember how many times I willed for Terra and her family to stand up to their dad on the first parts of the book! The attraction between Terra and Jacob felt real, too, and not rushed. The author certainly took her time in building their relationship, which I really appreciated, and when the fallout came? Oh dear, my heart went out to both and I almost wished that the little complication didn’t happen at all. Even Susannah, Terra’s aunt, who passed away before the story started, made her presence felt in the story.

A lot of other interesting concepts were discussed too, especially the ones related to cartography, since it was Terra’s dad’s occupation. Other than Colville and a bit of Seattle, I was also brought to China, making me want to see the sites that they visited there. The concept of geocaching was also explored, which is kind of like a more high-tech type of treasure hunt. Definitely something a geek would like. ;)

And the book’s ending? Totally satisfying. :)

North of Beautiful is a wonderful book, and I’m really glad I had the impulse to buy it. :) It’s definitely something I recommend, especially for girls, to remind us all of what true beauty is really all about.

I leave you with this quote from the book:

Let the glossy spreads have their heart-stopping, head-turning kind of beauty. Give me the heart-filling beauty instead. Jolie laide, that’s what I would choose. Flawed, we’re truly interesting, truly memorable, and yes, truly beautiful.

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