Sunday, January 30, 2011

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Release date: 9 February 2009 (United States)
Rating: 10/10

As he continued to stare, I wanted to point to my cheek and remind him, 'But you were the one who wanted this remember? You're the one who asked - and I repeat - why not fix your face?'

It's hard not to notice Terra Cooper. She's tall, blond, and has an enviable body. But with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably "flawed" face. Terra secretly plans to leave her small, stifling town in the Northwest and escape to an East Coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. When an unexpected collision puts Terra directly in Jacob's path, the handsome but quirky Goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about herself and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. With her carefully laid plans disrupted, will Terra be able to find her true path?

I only found out about this incredible book because my friend Jess at The Tales Compendium bought it while travelling in the United States and thought I would love it. Naturally, she was right. I usually try to avoid reviewing books Jess has already reviewed, because her writing blows mine out of the water, but I can’t not write a little something about this one.

And then I had to trust in the universal language of a smile. Jacob had told me to smile at all the starers, that ultimate act of disarming. As he said, it was the reason why so many doctors gave their time to cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries. Smiles biologically bonded mothers to their children, kicked in their mothering instinct. Fix the smile, save the child.

I think it’s an incredible shame this book is not available in Australia, as it could be such an important read for teenagers [outside the United States] who can relate to Terra’s self-consciousness. Although Terra has something specific “wrong” with her face, her general self-esteem issues and development throughout the book could relate to anyone going through high school and wanting to be accepted by their family and peers. I would have loved to have had the chance to read a book like this while going through school myself, for it may have made me feel a little less alone in my own issues with my face and the self-consciousness that is brought upon by “deformities” and the teasing and stares that go along with it.

It made no sense that I was actually considering his advice when I’d dismissed the very same thing from so many well-meaning people before. The difference, I suppose, was that he knew what it was like to be so obviously marked.

Although the book is overflowing with amazing characters and developments, the relationship between Terra and Jacob is at the heart of the story. They can identify with each other in a way that no one else in their lives has been able to understand before and that connection is crucial to the development of Terra’s self-esteem and acceptance of herself. Along the way we learn that Jacob has his own methods of dealing with the stares that come along with not only having been born with a cleft lip, but also with being adopted. His coping mechanism of giving people a ‘reason to stare’ is a powerful one to me and something a lot of people in his or Terra’s situation may relate to.

“So why Goth and not...?”
“Prep? Soccer guy?”
I nodded.
“Because...Because people stared at me whenever I went out with my parents. I mean, you might expect little Chinese girls to be adopted, but not boys. So I figured if people were going to stare at me anyway, then I would choose the terms of their staring. I can dictate what they see.”

The strength of this book is that it is not clich├ęd in saying that true beauty is what’s “inside” that counts; it is the acceptance of yourself and having confidence in that. The emotional development of the characters is incredibly powerful within the book and the entire story itself is simply beautiful. It has been a long time since I’ve not wanted a book to end this much.