Book Reviews

[review] North of Beautiful – Justina Chen


Release Date: February 1, 2009
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Age Group: Young Adult
Pages: 373
Format: Hardcover
Source: Personal copy

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 has woven together a powerful novel about a fractured family, falling in love, travel, and the meaning of true beauty.

Discovery: It was the first book I saw on a random trip to the bookstore.

+     Language. Chen’s writing is exactly the kind of easy, rhythmic prose that I want to achieve for myself, the kind that lulls you in and comforts you even as it leads you into uncharted, terrifying territory. My favourite passage has to be: “There is a time to study a map passionately, obsessively. To see where you’ve gone, where other have gone before you. To commit to memory every obstacle, every danger. Shakespeare had a term for this obsession: mappery. But there is a time, too, when you say ‘come dragons. I challenge you to find me.'”

+     Themes. The entire novel is a homage to the changes wrought by adolescence. We may not have the obvious birthmark on our faces, but there are blemishes and scars that we all wear and are eager to shed. Each of us are on journeys to find ourselves, each of us try to ignore the detractor in the corner, and none of us feel like we can actually do it. Terra’s birthmark may distinguish her from everyone else, but over the course of the novel, she learns to confidently wield that power. The title is especially poignant in light of this change in Terra: “beautiful” is a word that most girls yearn to be attached to their names, but Chen reminds us that it’s always possible to be more, to reach that pinnacle north of beautiful where we are happy to be exactly who we are.

–     Structure. There are three parts to this novel: Terra Nullis, Terra Incognita and Terra Firma. The third and last part was the one I was most pleased with, and the one which was developed best. During the first half of the novel, it does seem as though Chen is feeling her way along the story and her uncertainty is obvious. By the time Terra flies to Hong Kong, Chen has more control over her writing. I only really noticed this after my third reread, so it’s not too much of a problem.

Recommendations: North of Beautiful is a passionate and ethereal narrative, worth passing on to young girls who are entering adolescence as well as older readers who might need a reminder of just how wonderful they are.

Rating: Excellent.

Go check out Justina Chen Headley’s website and follow her on Twitter @JustinaYChen.

You can check out North of Beautiful on Goodreads and order it over at Amazon and Book Depository.

Next review: Once a Witch, Carolyn McCullough

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