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 stifling small 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?
Title: North of Beautiful
Author: Justina Chen
Publication date: 2009
Terra is physically perfect except for one thing: the port-wine stain on her face. She’s spent years covering it with makeup and chasing miracle treatments to erase it, but it’s still there and it’s the main source of her insecurity. She has a boyfriend who’s mainly into her for her body; they have nothing in common, but she’s made to feel like she’s lucky to have him because he’s popular and good-looking and she’s so flawed.
At home, Terra’s father is abusive. The blurb above calls him controlling, but it’s more than that: he’s verbally abusive. He constantly picks at his overweight wife, his imperfect daughter, and his sons when they’re around — which isn’t often because they moved as far away from him as possible at the first opportunity (one went to China!). Terra plans to follow in their footsteps and hopes to attend college on the east coast. The only problem is that her father isn’t willing to pay for anything other than the school he chooses for her. (I’m not sure why she doesn’t explore financial aid other than a throwaway line about him making too much money for her to qualify. There are a lot of scholarships based on merit rather than need, and if she’s hard-working and intelligent enough to finish high school in only three years, she’s going to qualify for some of them. There are even scholarships for people with port-wine stains! Terra’s an artist, although she doesn’t consider her collages art, so there’s another avenue.)
It’s unclear whether he’s always been this way or whether he turned into an asshole after the professional error that shamed him so greatly that he moved the family to a small town in the Methow Valley in Washington. Terra was kindergarten-age then, so it doesn’t really matter. Even if there was a change there, it’s something she’s lived with for most of her life. As much as she tries to ignore her father’s needling, it contributes to her low self-esteem.
Terra meets Jacob when she nearly runs him over with her car. He and his mother are going to the Methow Valley, so Terra and her mom hitch a ride with them, their car needing repairs before it can be driven again. Jacob is a Goth Asian teenager, adopted from China, and his mother runs a coffee company. Terra and Jacob end up hanging out and she’s interested in him but she has her insecurities, plus she already has a boyfriend. I really love that their relationship develops slowly. There’s no instalove here. They take their time getting to know each other long before they even kiss.
There’s a journey of self-discovery that is not just Terra’s, but her mother’s as well and that might be my favorite part. In an unexpected turn of events, they end up traveling together to China. As they explore the country, with the help of Jacob and his well-traveled mother and then on their own, they learn to navigate life and the world without Terra’s father’s input. The man who rules their home and their lives in Washington isn’t there to ruin their good time — and they discover that life really is much better without him. Alas, they eventually have to return home, but the seed has been planted and there will be changes. Terra’s off to college in the next couple of years, so I really hope that Terra’s mother, who will be left home with an empty nest, won’t go back to life the way it was for so many years. (I do know these people don’t actually exist, okay?)
There’s a lot going on in this book. I felt like it was maybe a little too much, which is why I didn’t rate it higher. North of Beautiful is filled with THEMES, which I really don’t care to analyze. I never enjoyed that in lit classes and I’m no longer in school so I don’t have to do it anymore. Ha! But I did notice them and thought them worth a mention. I do like the writing and plan to look for more books by this author.