On the surface, high school senior Terra Cooper and her mother Lois might not seem to have much in common. Terra is a fitness fanatic; she runs and snowshoes daily to maintain her perfect figure. Lois, on the other hand, has let herself go, wearing sweatsuits every day and baking delicious high-fat goodies that no one in the family eats except Lois herself. Terra can’t wait for college, a chance to escape her small Washington town, a picturesque tourist trap that stifles individuality. Lois can’t see any way out of the domestic prison that traps her.
It turns out, though, that Terra and her mom have a lot in common. Both are ruthlessly mocked by Terra’s father, Grant, a cartographer whose own frustrations over his personal failings have become warped and twisted, redirected toward his wife and daughter as a nonstop barrage of caustic verbal attacks. Both would be described by Grant as “pretty ugly” --- Lois for her beauty-queen looks now hidden by flab, Terra for the port-wine birthmark that covers half her otherwise perfect face. And both are locked in unhealthy romantic relationships, trapped by the feeling that they don’t deserve better.
All that starts to change when a car accident brings Terra and her mother in contact (literally) with Jacob and his mother, Norah. Jacob, on vacation from cosmopolitan Seattle, is nothing like the guys Terra usually falls for. He’s Chinese, adopted as a toddler from a Chinese orphanage where he was abandoned because he had a cleft lip. He’s a chameleon --- Goth one day, surfer boy the next, nerdy chic the next. But he understands Terra almost immediately, recognizing her for who she is, not what she looks like, admiring her unusual artistic creations instead of belittling them. Norah and Lois also become fast friends despite having almost nothing in common. Norah is the head coffee buyer for a major company, traveling all over the world to find the best blends, while Lois is too paralyzed even to drive a few hours to Seattle.
Over Christmas vacation, however, the two moms and their kids grow increasingly close despite troubles at home. When Terra’s older brother, a lawyer in Shanghai, invites Terra and Lois to China for a visit, Norah and Jacob come along to serve as tour guides and revisit the orphanage where Jacob was adopted. The trip is liberating on a variety of levels, rejuvenating both the mother-daughter relationship and Terra and Lois’s faith and pride in themselves and their own brand of beauty.
Justina Chen Headley’s third novel is a terrifically thought-provoking addition to young adult literature that will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen, readers who are looking for a sophisticated exploration of such issues as identity, family dynamics and relationships. What’s remarkable about NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL is not its originality, but its thoughtfulness and complexity. Many other books have used “true north” to symbolize true love, for example; few, however, could sustain the extended cartographical and geographical metaphors with which Headley enhances this standard motif. Likewise, discovering inner beauty and pursuing independence are not exactly new ideas in young adult literature. The thoughtfulness with which Headley probes these ideas, however, and the care with which she addresses them in multiple characters’ lives and in myriad thematic variations somehow breathe fresh air --- and true beauty --- into what could have been shopworn clichés.
Terra’s story will not easily be forgotten, and this wonderful novel should help bring a talented writer the larger audience she deserves.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 1, 2009
North of Beautiful
by Justina Chen Headley
- Publication Date: February 17, 2010
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
- ISBN-10: 0316025062
- ISBN-13: 9780316025065
It's the birthday of the avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky (1882), born in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia. His first major success as a composer was a ballet based on a Russian folk tale, called The Firebird (1909). It was wildly popular, and he traveled all over Europe to conduct it. He then got an idea for a ballet about a pagan ritual in which a virgin would be sacrificed to the gods of spring by dancing herself to death. Stravinsky composed the piece on a piano in a rented cottage, and a boy working outside his window kept shouting up at him that the chords were all wrong. When Stravinsky played part of the piece for director of the theater where it would be performed, the director asked, "How much longer will it go on like that?" Stravinsky replied, "To the end, my dear." He titled the piece The Rite of Spring. At its premiere in 1913 in Paris, the audience broke out into a riot when the music and dancing turned harsh and dissonant. The police came to calm the chaos, and Stravinsky left his seat in disgust, but the performance continued for 33 minutes and he became one of the most famous composers in the world.
-- The Writer's Almanac