It would be easy to call Justina Chen Headley’s North Of Beautiful a gorgeously written, moving young adult novel — and trust me, it absolutely is. But it’s also so much more than that.
Sixteen-year-old Terra Cooper is an artist, student, daughter, girlfriend — and a young woman with a port-wine stain splashed across her cheek. Her life has been defined by her birthmark, which she takes great pains to cover with makeup every morning. That “secret,” most tender part of herself is exposed only around her mother Lois and Grant, her father. After some controversy, Grant Cooper’s lifelong obsession with maps has given way to a new subject of malevolence: his wife. Terra and her mother live in constant fear of Grant’s mercurial moods and quiet, seething disdain, while Terra’s two older brothers have flown as far away from their disjointed family as they can. Terra protects herself emotionally with art and physically with Erik; Lois buries herself in the comfort of food.
But everything changes when she meets Jacob, a Goth teen accustomed to standing out. While Terra attempts to cover her birthmark, Jacob attempts to embrace what he could never hide: his heritage. As the Chinese-American son of Norah, his blonde, white mother and older brother to a white-blond child, Jacob couldn’t bury himself away if he tried. So he jumps to the other end of the spectrum — smile yourself and put others ill at ease. Jacob’s father’s impending remarriage to a woman closer to Jacob’s age has put a splinter into Norah’s carefully-concocted existence. A chance meeting between Terra, Lois, Norah and Jacob points them all in a totally new direction.
It’s hard to describe exactly what made this book feel like magic dust slipping through my fingers — the strong characterization? Potent emotion? Excellent storytelling? Gut-wrenching dialogue? The gentle, sweeping but very effective romance? Lush scenery? I’m not sure, but as the story begins to take flight and Lois and Terra embark on an adventure neither could ever imagine taking, I could literally feel my heart expanding. Chen made me feel as though I were walking right alongside them, cheering them on as they pulled further and further away from Grant’s tentacles.
Because as much as this is Terra’s tale, it’s a story about Lois, too. And Grant. And Norah. And Jacob. And Erik. No one in Chen’s novel is extraneous; no bit of expression is random. Though the prose flows beautifully, every line bears the weightiness of importance — we know what we’re being told is something we should know.
And never before have I read a novel — and a long novel! — that carried a metaphor so seamlessly through every paragraph. Mapmaking, a compass, a cartouche, geocaching, collages, the very map itself — Chen is a master. When I realized the importance maps would play in the story, instinctively I waited for it all to get redundant . . . but it never did. Maps are the story’s anchor, the not-so-subtle — but fantastic — way of guiding us through the novel. And in the end, Terra’s face itself is a map, too.
Another thing I loved and can’t pass up mentioning? How beautifully Chen describes the transformative powers of travel. Though you can return home from a journey and settle in the same bed in the same house in the same town, you are not the same person. You’ve been forever changed in ways both perceptible and invisible. Experiencing a new world through Lois and Terra’s eyes and watching their return to Colville totally buoyed me up.
I could keep talking about this book for another ten posts, but I’m sure you have lunch to eat, work to do and family to enjoy. So I’ll leave you with this: read North Of Beautiful. I cried and desperately didn’t want it to end — and found myself wondering what the characters were up to days after I finished the book. That’s my kind of story!
5 out of 5!