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REVIEW: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Dear Ms. Chen Headley,

031602505401lzzzzzzzI loved your previous novel, Girl Overboard, and after going back to read your debut, Nothing But The Truth (and a few white lies), I’ve decided that you’re one of my favorite contemporary young adult novelists in recent years.   I wasn’t sure if North of Beautiful could match my love for Girl Overboard but I went in with an open mind.   The final verdict: Wow.

From behind, Terra is a stunningly beautiful: tall and blond with a knockout body.   Unfortunately she has one minor “flaw:”

While my face couldn’t launch a thousand ships, it has the power to make any stranger whip around for a second look.   Trust me, this mixture of curiosity and revulsion is nothing Helen of Troy would ever have encountered.

Terra has a port wine stain that covers her entire right cheek.   In her small Washington town, it’s branded her a freak since she was little.   And it’s not just the people in town who treat her as “flawed.”   Terra also gets it from her family.   The youngest of three children, Terra is the only one still living at home.   Her oldest brother works halfway around the world in China, and the second oldest attends college but never comes home.   The reason for their avoidance stems from their father whose determination to control everyone manifests itself via cruel, sniping criticisms.

With the boys gone, Terra and her mother, Lois, are the ones left to deal with the brunt of his daily abuse.   For Terra, this means she’s on the receiving end of insults about her “ugly” face.   For Lois, a former rodeo queen who’s been worn down by her husband’s constant barrage of petty comments, this means she gets comments about her weight, her cooking, and her dietary habits.   As a result, Lois clings to Terra, nearly suffocating her, by showering her with miracle treatments and laser treatments in the hope that “repairing” her face will give her “perfect” beauty.   It’s a sad reflection on two fronts.   First, if Lois can’t be the beautiful rodeo queen she once was, her daughter can be.   Secondly, and probably most importantly, if Terra’s face can be “fixed,” then so can their family.   Of course, it’s never that easy.

The relationship between Terra and Lois is further strained when it hits home that Terra will be graduating one year early and be heading to college next year, leaving Lois alone with her husband with no children present to serve as buffers.   So out of guilt, Terra agrees to one final treatment for her birthmark, and it’s after that fateful appointment that she nearly runs over a goth Asian boy named Jacob.   It’s this meeting that changes her life and teaches her what beauty truly means.

If Girl Overboard was a novel with multiple intersecting external events, North of Beautiful is a novel with multiple intersecting internal (emotional) currents.   The obvious one is that Terra’s been chasing after the Land of Beauty for her entire life, but it’s always been beauty as defined by other people — a father’s never-satisfied standards, a mother’s hopes that fixing Terra’s face will fix their home, a best friend who defends Terra but never really lets her shine either, and a boyfriend who loves her body but is ashamed to be seen with her in public.   Everyone’s put her in a box and in one way or another, she’s trying to escape, to become the person she wants to be.

And speaking of Terra’s father, what an awful man.   He’s the perfect illustration of how abuse isn’t limited to physical, or even yelling.   Not once does he ever raise his voice but I don’t think anyone who reads this book can see him as anything other than an abuser, not with the things he says to his wife and kids.   And all because he was professionally humiliated by trying to put forth a forged map as genuine?   As if that was their fault.   He doesn’t need to take it out on them.   What a jerk.

While some readers will be put off by the romantic aspects of the novel — because let’s face it, Terra was cheating on her boyfriend with Jacob even though her relationship with Jacob was mostly innocent although their feelings obviously went beyond the platonic — I did enjoy it because it reminded me of how high school relationships could be so messy, seemingly to bounce from one to the next without any clear delineations in between.   I do appreciate the fact that even though it’s obvious Terra is with her boyfriend, Eric, for all the wrong reasons (she’s afraid that no one else will ever want her; after all, the only reason he hooked up with her in the first place is because he fell in lust with her body) and that Jacob is the one for her, the story never vilifies Eric.   They’re wrong for each other but I think we can all remember a time when we all went out with someone just to go out with them, just because, even though there was no connection there.

Even if I don’t quite buy the thought of relative strangers going on a trip halfway around the world with each other, I did like the trip Terra and Lois took with Jacob and his mother to China.   It was wonderful watching Terra’s mother rediscover herself, the former rodeo queen who could hold her head high, and seeing Jacob’s confident, self-possessed mother show some vulnerability and weakness.   I’m curious to know how well the adoption storyline was portrayed.   It rang true for me but since I’m not adopted, that doesn’t say much about its authenticity.   On the other hand, I completely sympathized with Jacob during his time in China.   I know what it’s like to have people assume you speak the language because you’re Asian but in reality, the only one you know is English.   That I can agree with; it gets tiring — especially when they look like at you like you’re a freak or brain-damaged.

But what I loved most about the book was the prose.   I readily admit I’m not a prose lover like some of my fellow DA reviewers are.   I only really notice it when it’s exceptional one way or another.   This book reminded me of the power of first person point of view, and how it can reveal character through the words used and can give insight into what matters to them most:

But all maps lie, I wanted to tell Karin and the rest of the class and especially this holly-jolly geneticist.   Even the best maps distort the truth.   Something’s got to give when you take our three-dimensional world and flatten it down to a two-dimensional piece of paper: Greenland balloons; Africa stretches.   Entire wars have been won and lost because of maps, these keepers of secrets.   There’s power in the grid lines, in knowing where resources are, in the snaking boundaries that define countries.   I should know.   My father is a modern-day cartographer, the Ptolemy of global positioning software, and was once the most gifted liar around.

Some people will find the map analogy tiresome.   But seeing as Terra’s father was such a domineering force in her life, the all-pervasiveness of cartography and maps in her perspective worked for me.   It reminded me of how much her life has been determined by his whims.   Oh, and bonus points for including geocaching.   It makes sense, given the importance of cartography and maps in the story, but that’s not something you run across often in fiction.   A-

My regards,

This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!


  1. Lissa
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 10:24:20

    Your review makes me interested to read this book. I do not usually read young adult for a lot of reasons, but I would be interested to see how the birthmark is handled in this one.

    My oldest son was born with a birth mark on his right cheek; at 18 months it was necessary, for medical reasons, to have it removed. He had to have an additional surgery a year later to remove cysts that had formed in the scar. What he ended up with was a scar on his right cheek that extended from just under his eye to curve about 3 inches down his cheek. His paternal great grandmother had a fit. She accused me of ‘scarring my child for life’ – which I suppose I did, but my other option was to let him die. I will take a scar any day.

    We always treated the scar as just a part of him – like his blonde hair and blue eyes, but it was both interesting and maddening to see and hear other people’s reactions to it. Strangers would comment – asking how it occured, stating how ugly they found it to be, asking us why we didn’t have it ‘fixed’ – things I would have never thought to ask or say to someone I didn’t know, or someone I did know for that matter. Once the surgery healed completely, there was a period of time when the scar was only visible after physical activity – his face would be red and the scar would show white against it, but then he had a growth spurt.

    The scar lengthened and spread – as the plastic surgeon told it would and became a very visible part of his face. The surgeon had told us that when he was finished growning (at about 18) the scar could be repaired and made to look as it did shortly after it was first healed. When I asked my son at 18 if he wanted to talk to the surgeon about repairing the scar, he looked at me rather oddly and asked me why I would think he would want to take it away. He liked his scar, said it made him unique and he was fine with it the way it was. He is now 25, married and has a beautiful son of his own.

    I guess the point of this is that I wonder why it is that things like scars and birthmarks become such tragic tropes in novels. I suppose if you have one and you are told all your life that it is gross and unsightly, then it would shape your outlook on life, but on the other hand, some things are out of your control and they just are, so why would it change who you are or how you are perceived by others. I would never think to walk up to a stranger and comment on a birthmark, a scar, their weight, a handicap or any other physical aspect and I always wonder about the upbringing of those who do. Do they not realize how rude they are? How unfeeling? How their comments can be perceived?

    I will have to pick up this book and see if the public reaction to her birthmark matches the reactions my son and I received both about his birthmark and the subsequent scar. I know the differences between the character’s upbringing and my son’s has to do with how her parents react to the birthmark, but it is an interesting subject to me. Thanks for the review.

  2. Rebekah
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 10:47:07

    To Lissa:
    Just wanted to say that your comment was beautiful. After reading the review I want to read this book as well. I now look forward to reading this book with both both POVs. As a reader and as a person that has had a glimpse of what it’s like to know someone who lives with a “scar”. Insight, even the smallest amount makes happy reading!
    Great review!

  3. Jia
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 11:16:31

    @Lissa: Thank you so much for your comment. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the book. I think some of the things you mention reflect some of the things Terra experiences in the novel.

  4. Jory Strong
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 11:52:31

    Justina Chen Headley is a new author to me, but after reading this review, I’ll check out this book, as well as her earlier works.

  5. Jill Myles
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 15:23:01

    In my experience, being set apart with something ‘ugly’ like a port wine stain, a birthmark, or something else makes you an absolute freak in school, and I can definitely understand how it destroys your self-confidence. I wore a back-brace all through grade and half of high school, and it definitely did a number on how I perceive myself.

    I think if I read this and the character didn’t think anything was wrong with her birthmark (however healthy that mental realization is), I’d probably toss it across the room because my own mileage was so very different.

    I guess the point of this is that I wonder why it is that things like scars and birthmarks become such tragic tropes in novels. I suppose if you have one and you are told all your life that it is gross and unsightly, then it would shape your outlook on life, but on the other hand, some things are out of your control and they just are, so why would it change who you are or how you are perceived by others. I would never think to walk up to a stranger and comment on a birthmark, a scar, their weight, a handicap or any other physical aspect and I always wonder about the upbringing of those who do. Do they not realize how rude they are? How unfeeling? How their comments can be perceived?

    I think it’s a ‘tragic trope’ because having strangers comment on it or make you feel weird about it is the *norm*, rather than the exception.

    Or rather…it’s not that people will walk up to you and tell you how ‘gross’ you are, it’s that you as the teenager are painfully aware of how ‘different’ you are and that does a number in your head. I still (to this day) cringe whenever people assess me, because I still think they’re seeing the weirdo with the back brace, or wondering if they can tell that my spine is curved or that my shoulders don’t match.

    People are hard on you when you are different, but I think, sometimes, that we are harder on ourselves than others are. That knowledge that you are different/freakish can really eat you up inside, even if no one says a word. A long stare or a double-take can destroy your confidence faster than anything.

    (Now, where’s Dr. Phil when I need him?)

  6. Julia B.
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 16:28:13

    Jia, wonderful review! You left me wanting to read this book so much! I love to discover new authors and I just checked more about the book and the author and I think she’ll become a favorite author for me. I’ll be looking for her books.

    Lissa and Jill, thank for sharing your experiences! Anything that set a kid apart can be hard for him/her when growing up, and I think that probably is even harder for girls than for boys because all the beauty standars out there.

  7. Dee Tenorio
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 17:15:53

    Wow, I pretty much never read YA, but I’d consider this one. Interestingly, my husband has a port wine stain and is also Asian–his is on his hand and forearm and he’s constantly asked about it. People are weird about it, like it’s ink that will spill on them if they shake hands. It’s kinda sexy to me, lol, but that’s a whole other post.

    Also interestingly, he went to China a few years ago and while he loved it, he did come across many Asians who thought he was a Chinese speaker and were not so politely irritated when he wasn’t. He’s not even Chinese, actually, but apparently they all thought he was because a common name he was called by these unhappy folks was an “ABC”–American Born Chinese. No idea how the initials came to be an insult, per se, but once he figured out that they were insulting him and not asking him if he spoke English, he cracked up about it.

    I’ll have to take a look at this one.

  8. orannia
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 19:36:48

    Thank you Jia for a wonderful review and also for bringing Justina Chen Headley’s books to the fore. And thank you Lissa & Jill for your insight.

    Terra’s father sounds unfortunately familiar. I think North of Beautiful is a book that definitely needs to be read. And can I just add that I love the fact that my library has North of Beautiful and Girl Overboard!

  9. Christina
    Feb 04, 2009 @ 03:36:29

    Dee Tenorio- actually the term ABC isn’t really an insult at least to me really. Most people just figure that if you’re an ABC you can’t speak chinese. So I take it as an term of enderment cuz that is what i am an American Born Chinese. There are other terms that we fellow ABC’s call people who just came here which is a FOB or fresh off the boat which is sorta an insult.

    When ever I go back to Taiwan people are always amazed by the fact that I can speak chinese but here in America people are amazed with my english speaking ability even thought I’m born and raised here. So sometime in a sense I am neither Chinese or American.

    Sorry for the off topic reply

  10. Deborah Reber
    Feb 04, 2009 @ 13:59:20

    I’m a fan of Justina’s and am having a giveaway contest for an autographed copy of “North of Beautiful” on my blog for teen girls, Smart Girls Know. Deadline is end of day Friday, Feb 6th. You can enter the contest here!

  11. Top Books of 2009 by Jia | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 13:19:39

    […] North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley […]

  12. carmel
    May 05, 2014 @ 00:58:27

    i really love yur book

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