North Of Beautiful Summary

Justina Chen Headley

North Of Beautiful

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North Of Beautiful Summary

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North of Beautiful (2009) by young adult, Taiwanese-American novelist Justina Chen Headley follows an emotionally-abused teenager with a large birthmark as she finds the meaning of inner beauty. Inspired by the poem “Phenomenal Woman,” Headley wrote this novel to pay homage to Maya Angelou. The novel received starred reviews in several prominent newspapers.

Its themes include the nature of beauty, redemption through art, and the corrosive effects of long-term emotional abuse. It is written in the first person.

Sixteen-year-old Terra Rose Cooper is absolutely gorgeous, except for a port-wine stain on her cheek. She also possesses artistic talent, is a high-achieving student, and has managed to score Erik, a popular, athletic guy for a boyfriend (even though they have nothing in common and Terra is certain that he doesn’t understand her). Terra is concerned with those parts of her body she can control and rigorously exercises each day, going for long runs and snowshoeing around Methow Valley, specifically the town of Colville, Washington, or what Terra calls “Middle of Nowheresville, USA.”

Terra’s birthmark remains a target for her difficult father, Grant, who just can’t keep himself from making derogatory comments about it. Her father’s meanness is caused by his insecurity and disappointment with his professional life as a cartographer. Grant Cooper named each of his kids after cartography: Terra for earth, and Mercatur and Claudius after famous mapmakers. Terra applies a wide array of makeup and lotions to her face, but she remains acutely conscious of the red stain.

Her mother, Lois, a former beauty queen, is a shell of a person—overweight, unhappy, and seemingly hopeless. Constantly afraid of being judged, Lois is incompetent at everything she does; she bends over backward to meet Grant’s many selfish demands. Most days, it’s up to Terra to protect her mother from Grant. Her father mocks her mother’s habit of compulsive baking and near constant eating.

Terra makes collaged maps, though she doesn’t show them to anyone. Her father taught her about cartography when she was younger and they had a better relationship. Her artwork is completely for her own sanity. It’s a powerful way for Terra to temporarily forget her anxiety-ridden household. Since early middle school, all Terra has wanted from her family is the chance to leave them. She wants to escape her small town in Washington and go to Williams College on the East Coast, but her manipulating and domineering father refuses to let her attend any college. When she is accepted to the prestigious college, Grant takes the acceptance letter from the mailbox and doesn’t tell Terra the good news.

On their way to a dermatology center where Terra will receive laser treatment to lessen her birthmark, mother and daughter get into a car accident. Through this event, Terra meets Jacob Fremont, a boy who will eventually help her accept herself and fulfill her potential.

Jacob is from Seattle. He’s an Asian American who has found a way to live with a facial abnormality, in his case, a cleft lip. He’s funny, self-confident, and admires all of his quirks, as well as the quirks of others; Terra is amazed that he seems to be the first person she’s ever met who genuinely doesn’t “see” the abnormality on her face. He’s also the first person to say she’s beautiful. Jacob has a great relationship with his adoptive mother, Norah Fremont, who adopted him from China as a toddler.

Jacob and Terra have a lot in common, namely a fascination with maps, exploration, and a similar history of struggling with facial abnormalities. Jacob introduces Terra to geocaching and other fun ways to use a GPS. They’re always highly aware of identity constructions. But whereas Terra feels trapped by hers, Jacob embraces the performative aspect of identity and enjoys a variety of guises, from Goth to surfer to startup cool.

This attraction of opposites also works with their mothers. Norah is a successful businesswoman, the head coffee buyer for a large company. Her job requires her to travel throughout the world in search of the most exquisite bends. In contrast, Lois is so paralyzed by self-doubt and self-disgust (all encouraged by her husband Grant) that she is too afraid to drive more than a few hours away from home.

One day, Terra’s older brother, Merc, invites Lois and Terra to Shanghai, China, where he works as a high-profile lawyer. Around the same time, Jacob and his adoptive mother plan a trip to Shanghai to visit the orphanage where Jacob spent his first few years of life. They act as tour guides, giving Lois and Terra an intimate look into the orphanage. While there, Terra sees a little girl with a birthmark similar to hers; she walks over to her and tells her that she’s beautiful.

Away from Grant, Terra and her mother start figuring out a life for themselves. They grow closer while visiting China. They also find more admirable qualities within each other. With a greater understanding of themselves and each other, Lois and Terra begin their own healing process.

Back in home in Washington, Terra stands up to her over-domineering father.