Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: North of Beautiful

North of Beautiful
Justina Chen Headley
February 2009; Little, Brown; 978-0-316-02505-8 (hardcover)

Summary: Terra strives for perfection in everything. She works out two hours a day, including five hundred stomach crunches. She's going to graduate from high school in three years. And she's got a part-time job on top of school and extracurricular activities. But in the eyes of her father--and herself--all this effort doesn't matter. Because with her port-wine stain covering half her face, Terra clearly can't be perfect. Will Terra be able to chart her own course to True Beauty and Terra Firma--or will she let her father keep her in Terra Nullis?

Three Things to Know About North of Beautiful

#1: Words hurt more than anything else.

When Terra says her dad yells at her, her friend Karin doesn't understand. "You mean he just yells at you?" For Karin, yelling isn't very damaging. But Terra knows that words can hurt as much as a slap or a punch. It's a slow, insidious pain, one that slowly grinds you down. In addition, the belittlement from her father has affected her whole family: her brothers have escaped and her mom fulfills her father's every need or whim. Terra thinks that she should escape, too: go to Williams College and become an executive. Yet slowly, she comes to realize that this path isn't for her: that the best way to escape her father is to stand up to him, to realize that he's no different from the ancient cartographers who wrote "here be dragons" on unexplored regions. He might try to keep her in a cage with his words and derision, but Terra can break free.

#2: An extended metaphor leads to exploration.

Terra's father is a disgraced cartographer, and his profession has created Terra's boundaries. Justina Chen Headley uses maps to define the way that Terra sees her own life and how she manages to go off the map, into the land of dragons. This metaphor infuses the novel, allowing us to effortlessly see Terra's development through the story. Even more impressive, aspects of maps also are used to explore other characters and their actions. Yet maps aren't the only way you discover where you are, as Terra discovers. Thanks to Jacob, a boy she meets after she hits his car, she learns about GPS and geocaching. This new technology gives Terra further power as she journeys towards self-knowledge.

#3: Questions of what is beauty.

Terra's port-wine stain has lead her to hide it--and herself. Despite uncomfortable and painful laser surgeries, her birthmark cannot be healed or lightened, and so she plasters makeup over it. Yet when she meets Jacob, she starts to realize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Jacob is Chinese, abandoned when he was three due to his cleft lip. Now repaired, Terra at first can't help but notice his scar. Gradually, though, she stops seeing it--just like he stops seeing her birthmark. And when they visit the orphanage that Jacob lived in, Terra meets a small Chinese girl who has a port-wine stain, too. This little girl helps crystalize for Terra that beauty comes in a hundred million different variations, and that her port-wine stain is just one of her features: not her only one, not the one that defines her.

In North of Beautiful, Justina Chen Headley gives us an in-depth look at one girl as she moves towards becoming a woman. Fans of Sarah Dessen and Ann Brashares will find a new favorite author after reading this lyrical, compelling novel.

1 comment:

Janssen said...

I have this on request right now. . . I've heard SO many good things about this.