North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've been thinking about this book for a few weeks now and decided I needed to re-read it and give it a better review since the one I wrote before didn't do it much justice.
I loved this book, even more so the second time around. True, it's got most of the clichés of YA fiction (girl with issues meets perfect boy, love triangle, HEA, blah, blah...) but the story was developed so well and with so many subplots that I think it is worth giving it a special place in the chaos of YA lit.
Terra is a beautiful girl, her beauty marred - only - by a port-wine stain on her face. She is part of a dysfunctional family, where everybody and everything rotates around an emotionally abusive father - the worst kind, difficult to rebel against.
On her way back from the umpteenth medical treatment to try to remove her stain, she literally crashes into Jacob (sliding on ice, bit of a Twilight deja vu here but that's where the similarities end) an Asian looking Goth boy who is going to turn her life pretty much upside down.
Terra and Jacob, though both remarkably handsome teenagers, both have a physical problem that doesn't make them fit in. Terra has a rather big port-wine stain on her face while Jacob, apart from having a cleft lip, is also an adopted kid from Asia with a stunningly blond mother. So they are both different from others but where Terra tries to mask herself and her insecurities behind cosmetics and look like others while replicating beauty through her art, Jacob interprets his diversity by exasperating it and camouflaging - as a Goth, for example. I like when he says:
" 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 term of their staring. I can dictate what they see.
I liked his attitude.
So, while the both have problems, Terra is the one who is truly lost. The "spatial" theme permeates every part of the book. Terra's name, the fact that her father is a cartographer, her being directionally challenged, the geocaching game, her journey to China with Jacob; these are all parts of the puzzle that is Terra looking for her direction in life, her True North, which she finally finds thanks to Jacob, who becomes, eventually, her compass.
All characters were extremely well developed, up to Terra's father, the ultimate bully. With his psychotic behavior, he influences the lives of so many people. Terra's insecurities are thanks to him, her mother has become his doormat and finds her means of escape in food, her brothers have both disappeared and are slowly turning into some facsimiles of their father.
So, while the book can be considered YA and a light read for its romantic content, I loved it because it has a lot of substance, it goes deep into the fragile balance of relationships within a family and even Terra and Jacob's story didn't sound the idiotic love-at-first-glance-and-forever kind of love. True, Jacob is a bit too perfect to be true even in his imperfection, he seems to me like the projection of what women want from men but will never attain - at least, i've never met such a man. I also thought the scene in the orphanage was a bit too melodramatic and sappy, both when Jacob finds his ahma and when Terra finds the little girl. But again, minor imperfections in an incredibly well written, enjoyable and thought-provoking book.
Will be looking for other books by this author.
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