Review of “North of Beautiful” by Justina Chen Headley

Terra Cooper, 16, has a port-wine stain birthmark that pretty much covers the entire right side of her face. Her father, an emotionally abusive man, has always scorned her for being ugly. He also laughs at her art collages, undermining her confidence in something that means a great deal to her. He is a cartographer, can’t tolerate imperfection, and tries to make his family fit into the rigid lines with which he has circumscribed his life.

Her mother Lois, likewise reviled by Terra’s father – in her case for having gained weight, keeps scheduling Terra for surgeries to try to fix her face, in part to placate the father. Terra and her mom have both internalized the constant criticisms. Terra has a veritable make-up shop in her room to help disguise her face for the times when she can’t swing her long hair over her face. Lois takes her comfort in the very activity that drives her husband’s cruel remarks; she eats and eats to fill the void in her life.


While Lois is driving Terra back from yet another unsuccessful treatment on her face, they hit some black ice at a rest area, and slam into a Range Rover, almost killing the boy standing outside of it. Thus they meet the incredibly nice Norah Fremont and her son Jacob, whom she adopted from China when he was a toddler, unwanted because of a cleft palate, and since repaired. Jacob, with his scar and his blonde mom, gets stared at a lot just as does Terra, but Jacob responds in the opposite way from Terra: he sports an attention-getting Goth look, and stares right back with a big smile at those who gawk at him.

Unlike most books about teens, while this book does have a romance, and even a triangle of sorts, the focus is on the main protagonist and her relationship with herself, and with her parents, both of whom affect how Terra feels about herself in different ways. At the beginning of the story, Terra sees her mother from her father’s eyes, as a cringing subservient woman who eats too much, and kowtows excessively to her husband’s vicious moods. Yet, in spite of her contempt (albeit mixed with compassion), Terra feels she must stay around and protect her mother, unlike her two older brothers, who moved as far away as they could as soon as they could.

One of Terra’s brothers, Merc, is now in China, and after a disastrous attempt at a visit from him during Thanksgiving, he sends Terra and their mom a ticket to come visit him. They can’t imagine going, until Norah says she and Jacob will go with them; Norah has always meant to visit Jacob’s orphanage to try to track down his birth mother.

The journey is life-changing for all of them, as they all learn lessons about love and beauty and what really matters in life.

Discussion: This remarkable story grows on you after you have finished and you find you are still thinking about it. It was hard to read because of the horrific abusiveness of the father, but this made the family’s struggles against his influence all the more poignant and significant. And although it has an ending that is hopeful for some of the characters, it is realistic enough not to be totally positive in every way for everyone. Nevertheless, enough good develops to make you want to cheer for the advances, and to bring out the kleenex.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2009


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5 Responses to Review of “North of Beautiful” by Justina Chen Headley

  1. Don’t tell anyone but I’m pretty sure I’ve had this since 2009. It sounds like I need to pull it out and read it.

  2. Beth F says:

    Humm, I think this is still in my house somewhere. Now I want to read it. I didn’t realize it was so good.

  3. Rachel says:

    This sounds like a great book that teenagers could easily related to.

  4. Heather says:

    I read this years ago, when it was published, and absolutely loved it. It remains one of my favorite YA books to this day.

  5. stacybuckeye says:

    I just checked and I added this to my wish list in 2012!! Will I ever catch up? This looks excellent. Thank you for reminding me why I have it on my list 🙂

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