14 Aug / North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
I have to confess that had my teenaged daughter not handed me the book and said, “it’s great, I loved it,” I probably wouldn’t have finished this latest title from Justina Chen Headley whose debut, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), remains one of both my daughter’s and my most oft-recommended books that we still chuckle over when we just name its title. But true to my daughter’s assessment, by the final page, I was so glad to have stuck it out, because, truly it was worth the ride, tears and all.
Admittedly, the first half has just too much whining for old adult me. Overachieving, artistically-gifted Terra is near perfect in every way, except for a large port-wine stain across her otherwise lovely face. Her father’s a has-been cartographer who bet his entire career on a convincing map that claims America to be a Chinese discovery long enough before Columbus. When the map was proven to be a fake over a decade ago, superstar father turned bitter crank and abuses his family 24/7. Terra’s two older brothers have long escaped. Her powerless mother eats herself into obese oblivion.
Terra plots her escape from tiny Colville, waiting for early acceptance to Williams College because it’s on the other side of the country. Meanwhile, her jock boyfriend only wants her for her perfect body, which she religiously tones every morning before dawn. Her best friend thinks she’s so lucky that someone like Erik would give damaged Terra that sort of attention. Geez, with family and friends like that, Terra needs a savior and then some.
Enter Jacob – whom Terra meets because she almost runs him over. He’s a Chinese American adoptee raised by a no-nonsense, fabulous mother who chases the world’s best coffee beans. He was available for adoption – boys are rarely abandoned in China – because he, like Terra, was damaged; unlike Terra, he wears his scars from a repaired cleft lip with acceptance and even pride.
The young soulmates unite. And their mothers find quite a bolstering friendship, too. They all head to China where Terra’s oldest brother has sequestered himself in a powerful law firm. There on the other side of the world, both mothers and children have major revelations, and put a few weepy tears in your eyes along the way.
The surely unintended overemphasis on outward physical beauty (which thankfully is so completely debunked by book’s end), as well as the too-many and too-cute references to mapmaking/cartography/charting futures (read on as Terra Nullis morphs into Terra Firma) initially verges on tedious. But bottom line? Given the intended audience, my teenager’s quick (and concise!) conclusion just might be the best endorsement of all.
Readers: Young Adult