North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley

north of beautifulTerra was born with a large port-wine stain across half her face, and despite the doctor’s best efforts, nothing has helped to improve the appearance. She goes through life behind a thick layer of makeup, clinging to a boyfriend she doesn’t particularly like because he’s the only one who ever dated her, planning her escape from an emotionally abusive father. When she and her downtrodden mother accidentally skid on black ice and hit another vehicle, life begins to change for everyone involved. Terra begins to break out of the boxed-in definition of beauty that she’s been held to for most of her life.

That’s a terrible description of what ended up a very poignant book. A few years back, I started to read this one, but I was burned out on contemporary YA and didn’t get far. I’m glad I revisited now. At first, I worried that the book would seem like “just another YA,” the way it had during my first try. Then I met Terra’s father, and his first comment (about “jolie laide”) confused me so much (was it a direct insult? an attempt to compliment?) that I started looking deeper. More characters were introduced, the father was unmasked quickly as the jerk he was, and the book grew rounder.

This did not end up being a very typical YA novel, despite some fairly common themes (like finding the definition of true beauty). The family in the car that Terra hits involves a rich businesswoman, her toddler son from an ex-husband who is about to get remarried, and an adopted son, Jacob, who is Terra’s age. Jacob was abandoned at a Chinese orphanage as a baby, with a cleft lip, and was adopted when he was three. He’s able to provide Terra with an entirely different viewpoint on starers, beauty, art, disguise, and family. Yes, there’s a love-story angle, as there often is in YA, but it’s different from many – a friendship that grows up through shared experience and common interests over a long time.

I admit, while I liked reading about Terra’s journey, it was the journeys of other characters that really fascinated me. I loved seeing how her mother changed the most. Just as this is a pivotal time in Terra’s life, it’s the same in Lois’s, with most of her kids gone or about to go to college, and her life devalued entirely by her husband. Her transformation over the book is brilliant – gradual and realistic and tentative. There aren’t any miracles, and I love that.

It was a very good book. Again, I’m glad I went back to it now.

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About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2016, Prose, Young Adult and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley

  1. Heather says:

    I read this years ago and absolutely loved it. It’s still one of my favorite YA books of all time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shaina says:

    I’m glad this one ended up being worth going back to. It’s funny when the spring characters end up being the most interesting ones.

    Like

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