Monday, June 1, 2009

Book Review: North of Beautiful

Title North of Beautiful
Author Justina Chen Headley
Genre YA, Literary Fiction
Rating C+

Summary Terra has a port-wine stain birthmark covering one side of her face that affects the way she sees herself and the world sees her. Compound this by adding in a domineering dad, a family who cow-tows to his controlling ways, a know-it-all best friend, and a boyfriend who's only into her for her killer body (that distracts from her not-killer face). Enter Jacob, the sensitive and cool guy of her dreams who gets her... and drama unfolds.

First Line "Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you'd probably think I was perfect."

Review This book was a mix of the good and the bad (balancing out to an ever-so-slightly above average literary grade). Let's start with the good, shall we?

I liked the plot of this story, and that's what kept me reading. Although I'd read reviews of this book and pretty much knew straight away (knowing what I knew of the long-distance trip that happened with Terra and some other peeps), I still liked where the story was going well enough to keep reading. I guess I'm kind of a sucker for stories of self-discovery, even when the self-discovery is over-wrought and you see it coming a mile away.

I liked some of the characters. To me, the growth that the mom and dad experienced, and the revelations that Jacob experienced, were really interesting. Terra wasn't fully interesting in my opinion, but she wasn't completely irritating either, so that's saying something, right?

But the bad: I didn't like some of the characters' views of other characters. Most notably, I didn't understand why Terra kept fawning all over Jacob as the cool goth guy who wouldn't give her the time of day and probably had tons of chicks all over him. Really? Is that a typical stereotype? Cool goth guys? Maybe Headley was playing against type, but, if so, she should have described Jacob differently or made Terra a different kind of character so it would seem natural that a guy wearing a black trench coat would seem cool (at least in Terra's opinion). Because, to me, he seemed more like guy that's likely to massacre his school and less like a lady killer. Just saying... especially knowing that Terra's boyfriend is a jock hottie--much more the YA stereotype of a guy that's too cool for a girl like Terra.

But I think this whole Jacob-is-cool thing could have been done more convincingly if Terra had been characterized more appropriately. See, Terra's an artist, but she doesn't look, act, or speak like the stereotypical tortured artist type who would be drawn to the dark, brooding fringe guy with a soft spot for his little brother and good makeup application techniques. I think if Headley had drawn these characters a little more specifically, the initial attraction wouldn't have been so jarring. Sure, as we go along, Jacob is sensitive and you find you like him a bit more than Erik-the-jock (who is surprisingly redeeming), but that's after the fact that you've been weirded out by Headley's description of him... Example (these are from the same outing/day):

"The best Christmas present I received arrived three days late and came wrapped in funereal black. Jacob unfurled out of the dark morning, a bat flying from its roost," (p. 166).

"Jacob swung around on the chair, leaning against the window and stretching his crossed legs out in front of him. With any other guy, sitting cross-legged might have looked somewhat effeminate, but not Jacob. He looked like a coiled snake, ready to bit me. I wouldn't have minded," (p. 174).

Doesn't that seem a little incongruous? He's dressed like a serial killer and described as looking like a coiled snake, which to me conjures up bad images, but the voice of the narrator is fawning. It's weird, right? Or maybe it's just me, but it seemed like lazy characterization.

The other bad thing: The heavy-handed map motif. Sure, we all know from English 101 that travel is symbolic of a journey of discovery. I get it. I even like when an author uses a motif (i.e., recurring theme) to tie the story together, but the map stuff in this was really obnoxious. She would have benefited from a stronger editor who could have removed some of the references, made it more subtle, and less annoying.

As I stated earlier, I'd read some reviews, so I knew going in that a lot of readers found the map talk to be obnoxious, so I readied myself, but it's actually impossible to fully prepare yourself for the onslaught of cartography references throughout this. I actually found that map-ish things weren't so much a motif, but more a crutch so Headley didn't have to stretch too far to come up with unique imagery or metaphors.

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