All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

North Of Beautiful – Justina Chen Headley

on January 3, 2011

If you saw Terra Rose Cooper from behind, you’d be impressed. She’s tall, thin but fit and with long beautiful blonde hair. When she turns around though, all people notice is the flawed side of her face – one cheek is covered almost completely by a large port wine stain birthmark that so far, nothing has been able to fix. Laser surgery, chemical treatments, nothing has worked for Terra. Her daily regime includes a grueling application of make up specially designed to cover up such birthmarks. She’s lived with being stared at, ridiculed, taunted and rejected for years now. She’s pathetically grateful for her one close female friend, and also for Eric, her popular boyfriend. She doesn’t care that the relationship she has with Eric lacks meaning, she’s just glad that with her flaw, someone wants her. Terra is also a gifted artist, making collages that express her true feelings in ways she cannot. She wants to study art further in a small college she’s picked out. Now all she has to do is finish up her high school (she’s graduating one year early) and get the hell out of the small town she lives in. That’s what both of her brothers have done and they haven’t looked back.

Terra lives with her mother and father and her home life is even more depressing than the unfixable blemish on her skin. Her father is a bully – an emotional abuser, savage in his judgements and scathing remarks. Fixed with only two targets now that her brothers have both left home, Terra’s father forces down the brunt of all of his anger over a scandal years ago involving his professional life where he was made to look like a fool onto Terra and her mother. Terra can cope with it – the barbs hurt but she’s a strong girl and she’s got a focus of getting the hell out of town and away from him, a goal to latch onto. Terra’s mother on the other hand, once a pretty and charming young woman is now an obese miserable shell of what she once was. Taunted by Terra’s father about constantly eating fattening things and about her weight, she eats more out of misery and earns yet more ridicule. It’s a vicious cycle that breaks Terra’s heart. Her only worry is how her mother will fare once she goes to college. Her mother doesn’t possess the strength to stand up against those cruel jibes, that terrible emotional manipulation and savagery.

After a well meaning relief teacher gives Terra a pamphlet about a radical new laser treatment that might help her face, Terra and her mother take the five hour drive to Seattle despite Terra’s fathers strong assertions that no more time and money will be wasted upon her face, which can clearly never be helped. They allow him to think they’re doing some Christmas shopping and Terra has the first of several laser treatments which will hopefully reduce the size and angry colour of the mark. On their way home the car slides on a patch of ice and hits a four wheel drive, narrowly missing a boy about Terra’s age. It isn’t until she is out of the car that Terra is aware that she didn’t hit him and when his first comment is ‘oh God your face!’ Terra recoils. It’s nothing she hasn’t heard before.

But Jacob isn’t talking about her mark. He’s talking about her bleeding forehead. Adopted by American’s as a three year old, Jacob is Asian by birth and was born with a cleft palate. He has a physical imperfection of his own and even though his cleft palate has been mended by surgery, he bears the scar of where it once was. He’s more interested in Terra as a person and as Jacob and Terra form a tentative friendship, Terra’s mother and Jacob’s mother are forming one too. The near disastrous accident will change all of their lives and set Terra and her mother on journeys of self discovery and strength.

This is a really wonderful book to read. Terra is such a likable character, even with her settling for less than she deserves, because she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to get more. She’s a strong person, made strong by having to develop a tough exterior against the cruelty that is kids in the schoolyard. She pours discipline into the other areas of her life, sculpting her body into something enviable with hours of exercise each day, as if each stomach crunch she does and each mile she runs can chip away a little bit at that mark on her face. She is in a relationship with a popular boy in school, who she picked up in disguise at a party. She never sees him without her thick covering of make up and they spend more time in the back of his truck than talking. He doesn’t really understand her art and she doesn’t really care for his interests either but she is just happy that he is consenting to go out with her, despite her face.

When she meets Jacob, she doesn’t have any make up on and her birthmark is even more prominent from the laser sessions. Jacob is the first person who really doesn’t care at all about her face, and as an Asian Goth wearing make up, he’s probably used to stares himself. He teaches Terra a lot of things but probably the most important one is that she is worthy of more than just settling. That the right person out there will not see her birthmark, but see her. It was hard not to love Jacob – he was a mature and grounded guy who cared for a lot of things and showed Terra how to really live. Not to give up on her art because her father said that what she did wasn’t art at all – if she believed it was art, if it was how she chose to express herself, then it was art.

I think emotional abuse is a hard topic to capture in a novel because it’s very easy to dismiss words as being well… just words on a page. How hurtful can they be? But I think Headley did an excellent job with Terra’s father. He really was portrayed well as a wounded ego bully who picked on the weaker members of his family and drove the other members away. His barbs were just the right amount of nastiness and cunning concerned tone towards Terra’s mother and the right amount of sneering put down to Terra about her being useless. I really felt the sting of them, and could only imagine what it would be like to take a lifetime of this sort of abuse.

North of Beautiful is a really powerful story about inner beauty and just how little outward appearances should matter. Wonderfully written with amazing characters. Everyone from Terra to Jacob to their mothers, to the ladies Terra works with at the small local art gallery. I’m tracking down more of the author’s work.


Book #127 of 2010

4 responses to “North Of Beautiful – Justina Chen Headley

  1. I’ve seen this novel and wondered what it was about. Of course the book description gives so little information, it didn’t interest me. Now your review, that makes me interested. I’ll be looking for this one when my TBR list goes down or I’m looking for something real. Thanks for such a great review!

    Heather in Sandwich

  2. becca says:

    omg. i saw this book at the library and thought “what in the world is this about”
    but once i’ve read your revew, i swear i felt like crying. im gonna try this book
    right away. this book will inspire anyone especially people with faceal problems
    and blemases.

  3. […] North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley. Terra was born with a huge port-wine stain birthmark covering half of one cheek. She spends ages working on her perfect body, perfecting the art of covering it up with thick make up, using her long blonde hair to hide it. She dates a popular boy in school, just to feel worthy, that someone could want her in spite of her flaw. A million lessons on physical appearance and how it isn’t everything in this book. […]

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