North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley

North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley

I received this book for free from the publisher. All content and opinions are my own.

Terra Rose Cooper should be a junior but is actually a senior, aching to flee from her small, touristy Washington town, her emotionally abusive cartographer father, and the large birthmark on her check.  Terra is an artist but feels stifled by her home life and her exterior flaws.  When she crashes into a Range Rover owned by a boy her age, she embarks on a journey to value True Beauty in herself and in the world around her.

North of Beautiful studies the division between exterior appearance and interior condition.  I could write a term paper on the layers of this theme in this book.  North of Beautiful reminded me, in many ways, of a John Green novel – smart teenagers stumbling through situations and eventually getting their legs beneath them – from a girl’s perspective.  The cartographic elements from the ancient maps in Terra’s house to the geocacheing adventures added a layer of intelligence and fun.  What I liked most about this story, though, was Terra’s recognition of her own strengths and beauty:

“Maybe we don’t have the same definition about what’s beautiful.  So define it.  Define true beauty.”   . . .

Without looking at Jacob, I said slowly, “Well it seeps into you.  It doesn’t make you forget yourself, but totally the opposite.”  I chanced a glance at him.  He was watching me intently.  No glaze in his eyes.  So I continued more bravely: “It connects you with everything and fills you with awe that you share the same space with something that glorious.  Like a sunrise or a clear blue day or the most extraordinary piece of glass.  And then suddenly” – my hands escaped their tight grip in my lap, and now my fingers splayed wide like fireworks in the air – “you have this epiphany that there’s more to the world than just you and what you want or even who you are.”

 The plot, on the surface, was very formulaic.  However, the journey through the formula was creative.  Chenley trots her characters from the backlands of Washington to the busy streets of Bejing and back again with ease, insight, and beauty.  Chenley also manages to balance the good and bad traits of the characters, with possible exceptions of the father and the two brothers.  I was bothered, just a little, by frequent swearing (principally taking the Lord’s name in vain), but I know many teenagers who insert such words into their vocabulary with the compulsion of the valley girl’s “like.”  

Overall, I think Chenley found the right balance.  North of Beautiful is instructive without being preachy, intelligent without being arrogant, romantic without being sexual,  and fun without being fluffy.  I’d recommend this primarily to teenage girls but also to anyone who needs a reminder of what beauty really is.

Justine Chen Headley will be stopping by The Bluestocking Society on Monday with a guest post about her discovery of True Beauty.

North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley [rating:4]
Published 2009, 373 pages

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