North of Beautiful begins:
Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you'd probably think I was perfect. I'm tall, but not too tall, with a ballerina's long legs and longish neck. My hair is naturally platinum blond, the kind that curls when I want it to and cascades behind my back in one sleek line when I don't. While my face couldn't launch a thousand ships, it has the power to make any stranger whip around for a second look. Trust me, this mixture of curiosity and revulsion is nothing Helen of Troy would ever have encountered.
Terra Rose Cooper is a girl with a plan. She's going to graduate early and escape both her tiny hometown and her total bastard of a father*. She'll be leaving behind her best friend and her nice-enough boyfriend, yes, and hardest of all, she'll be leaving her mother to fend for herself -- but Terra needs this. She needs to get away from this town where everyone knows her and regardless of how many layers of make-up she wears, everyone knows exactly what she's covering up.
Of course, the aforementioned bastard of a father doesn't see things Terra's way. And suddenly she finds her plans turning to ash.
But on the way home from a session of laser treatment -- the latest in a long line of attempts to remove the port-wine stain from her face -- Terra and her mother meet a young man and his mother. This new connection, though it won't necessarily bring Terra back to her original path, will be life-changing.
It'll be very easy for the target audience to relate to Terra -- heck, I did, and I'm a good fifteen years older -- her self-consciousness about her birthmark could easily be someone else's self-consciousness about, well, anything. While she's bright and funny and creative, her temperament and choices make sense given her background and home life. She feels real.
It's tempting -- I want to go on and on about how cool geocaching sounds**, but the real strength here was Terra's growth and her relationship with the other characters (and the relationships between the other characters). Her relationship with her older brothers? Complicated. With her boyfriend? Complicated. With Jacob? If it's just the two of them, not so much -- but when the rest of her world is taken into account, a resounding yes. With her best friend? Complicated. With her mother? Less complicated, but still. Her father? I don't even know where to start.
If I look at her father rationally, for most of the book, he acts like a one-note character. But I reacted so violently to him emotionally that it wasn't an problem for me. And there were moments -- few and very far between -- where he seemed like a human being. Maybe since every member of the family is so buttoned down, his one-noteness felt right? I don't know. I've been thinking about that aspect of the book since finishing it last week.
My only complaint about the book came at the end -- I felt that her friendship with Jacob had such a slow build that the last few pages didn't really do it justice. The story just... ended. And I wanted more.
Regardless of my confusion about Terra's father and my problem with the last few pages, I loved this one. I think it's my favorite of Justina Chen Headley's books so far.
*That's my opinion, obviously. But, wow. It's been a while since I've hated a character quite so much. Every time he appeared, I found myself getting all tense, and for the two days it took me to find the time to read this one, my co-workers were treated (It was a treat, I tell you!) to rants about him.
**Though I will mention that I had a minor freakout and bought an inexpensive GPS device after finishing the book -- and as soon as it gets here, I'm totally going exploring.