Review: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen

January 20, 2014 / 8 Comments / Review, Uncategorized

Author: Justina Chen (website | twitter)

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Source: Gift from my lovely book buddy, @SarahO97 (thanks!)
Format: Paperback, 373 pages
Publication date: January 6, 2009 
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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?

Written in lively, artful prose, award-winning author Justina Chen Headley has woven together a powerful novel about a fractured family, falling in love, travel, and the meaning of true beauty.


NoB was a birthday present from one of my best book buddies, @SarahO97 – she didn’t tell me anything about it, but Sarah has great taste in books. I can definitely say that I wouldn’t have picked up NoB if it hadn’t been for Sarah….but boy, am I glad I did.

When I first started North of Beautiful, I expected it to be fairly light-hearted, with lots of self-discovery and a cute romance with some self-esteem stuff. Not so. This book surprised me with its depth and its honesty. But be warned: this is not an easy book.

At first, I was really put off by NoB, because seriously? Terra is a mess. She’s beautiful – except that she has a birthmark on her face that she thinks makes her look ugly. She’s tried a zillion times to have it removed through painful laser surgery, and it hasn’t worked, so she covers it up everyday with a pile of makeup. She’s got a boyfriend, but he doesn’t really care or pay any attention to her. And her family? YIKES. Her dad is possibly the worst person on earth. There are deadbeat dads, and then there are dads that verbally abuse their entire family, prodding and poking at every insecurity. Terra’s dad is the latter.

Because of his abuse, Terra’s brothers have both left home and barely ever contact her or her mother. Terra’s mom used to be a really strong woman, but has since retreated into herself, letting herself gain tons of weight and letting Terra’s dad stomp all over her. Terra herself is an amazing artist, but she has very little self-esteem, and can’t bring herself to finish any of her pieces or even sign her name on her art.

This was a lot for me to take, especially because I was on vacation and it was hard to read about someone who was so down on herself. This is not an ass-kicking heroine. This is a girl who could fall apart at any moment. In fact, at some points, I wondered if I was just being manipulated into feeling sorry for Terra and her family because some of the things that happened seemed so unbelievable to me. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that this book was a gift, I probably would have put it down.

But I’m so glad I didn’t, because towards the middle of the book, it really clicked in. I understood how Terra’s mom could be so weak, because the verbal abuse had happened for so long that it had just become routine to internalize the things Terra’s dad said to her. And once things started to change, in little ways, for Terra, I could really stand outside and see the authenticity in the book.

By the middle of the book, I felt like I was running a marathon with Terra, and I had hit my stride. From there on, it just got better and better. Justina Chen is obviously a huge fan of slow burns, and you really have to get through all of the hard stuff to get to the payoff.

This is a book that doesn’t take the easy way out. Each and every decision that Terra and her mother make is an effort for both the reader and the characters. But by the end of the book, I was so invested in the characters that I teared up – not because anything super sad or happy happened, but because I felt so full, raw, and inspired.


Words, Words, Words: I’ll be honest, I really didn’t get the writing in North of Beautiful at first. There were a few too many mentions of compasses and maps and going in the right direction, and I felt like I was being hit in the face with the metaphors. But within that, there were so many beautiful, perfect gems of writing that really just…hit the nail on the head. Behold:

Slow Burn Love (aka, No Insta-Love): I loved the fact that Terra’s other love interest, Jacob, wasn’t in love with her right away, or vice-versa. It’s obvious that they’re attracted to each other, but they really take the time to get to know one another. Like the story itself, it’s a slow burn, and I, as the reader, really got why they liked each other in the end.

I Want To Go To There: Travel is a huge part of Terra and her mom’s road to self-discovery, and Chen has some of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of China. It helps that I was in China just a few weeks ago, but seriously – she really gets what China is like now. She also really gets what’s hard and easy about travelling, and she puts those feelings and experiences into words perfectly.

The Final Word:

North of Beautiful is a book for people who love to feel those “feels.” While I did find the writing a bit wordy, once I got past that, I really started to love it. It’s a book that sticks with you, that really does do the worst possible things to its characters, but it also lets its characters rise from the ashes so beautifully that you can’t help but fall in love with each and every one of them.

Have you read NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL or any of Justina Chen’s other novels? How do you feel about hard books with a big payoff? Are they worth it? Are you okay with insta-love, or do you like a slow burn? Let me know in the comments!

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8 responses to “Review: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen

  1. It's been a few years since I've read this one, but I still look back on it fondly, it was one of my favourites. Great review! And eek, the second picture/quote you posted– I had no idea it referenced Before Sunset (I just watched that movie this year and loved it)!

    • She had me at Before Sunset and never let me go. =p

      Apparently this was a hugely popular one awhile back? I totally missed it. I'm so glad that it was given to me. =)

  2. This one sounds really interesting. It sounds like there are some interesting metaphors. Metaphor-heavy books can be hit or miss for me, but I might like this one.

  3. This one has been on my TBR list. I am not big on books that are wordy, use flowery language, or over-do it on descriptions. That's why I'm loving Goodreads' new preview feature. I can get a sense of the writing style of books to decide whether I want to pick them up or not, whether I want to invest my time and/or emotions or not.

    I am wary about the use of metaphors that you mentioned but the premise and your review outweigh my reluctance.

    Thanks for a great review 🙂

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