North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. Little, Brown. 2009. Copy reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.
The Plot: Meet Terra Cooper. She could be such a pretty girl... Tall, but not too tall. Ballerina's legs. Platinum blonde (natural). So pretty...
If it weren't for the port wine birthmark on her cheek.
She is flawed. The best she can do is hide behind heavy makeup; medical treatments have not worked.
She wants to escape... Escape the small town where everyone knows what her face really looks like. Escape her controlling father and doormat mother. Escape herself.
Escape is in slow steps, at first. Her artwork. Hoping to go to college far away. A secret trip to Seattle for one more attempt to treat her birthmark. CRASH. And a fender bender in a parking lot, that leads to meeting Jacob. An Asian Goth. And things start changing, faster and faster. North of beautiful is a place that isn't beautiful, but has it's own beauty.
The Good: Where to start? I read this a year ago, and so many details have stuck with me. Terra's artwork. Her horrible father. Her weak mother.
Her mother.... Headley does a terrific job portraying a woman who has been a bit beaten down by life, not very confident, hiding from life, who just needs a hand reached out to her to pull herself out of her hopelessness. That helping hand comes, surprisingly, from the family whose car Terra hits.
This unexpected friendship between the families -- between the mothers and between Terra and Jacob -- lead to one of the best things about this book. A trip to China. Terra's escape is made real, as the two families travel to Jacob's birthplace. After reading this book, I so so so wanted to travel to China; but the details, the description, make me feel like I have been there.
The father. I hated him. Hated him all the more for understanding him; a man who has been disappointed with life, who cannot control some things so instead tries to control his wife, his daughter, his sons. And -- as is usual the case -- control is done by being a mean, nasty, S.O.B.
The various metaphors going on in this book worked really well to add additional layers to the book. The father is a mapmaker -- talk about the ultimate illusion of creating and controlling a world! Thinking something is yours because you drew the lines, mapped it out. Geocaching also figures in this book; and it's a way for Terra to actually take something positive from her father (mapping places, finding things) yet make it uniquely her own. Discovering herself, while discovering hidden things.
Is this about a birthmark? About learning how to geocache? About a wounded mother healing and growing? A young artist? A romance? A trip to China? Coffee? It's all of these; but ultimately, it's classic young adult: coming of age, as Terra matures into a strong, beautiful young woman.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy