Sunday, January 25, 2009


Poised at the Edge Book Review
Justina Chen Headley

Terra Cooper thinks that if you saw her from behind you might be jealous of her. You might think she’s “perfect.” She’s tall, with a body that’s part dancer, part athlete. Her platinum hair always looks just right. As one might expect, people stare at Terra everywhere she goes. But when people are staring at her it’s usually not because of her aforementioned “beautiful” traits. Their unsolicited ogles are the result of Terra’s face. All the thick make-up and powder in the world can’t seem to cover the red-stained birthmark that stretches across her cheek.
Unfortunately Terra’s problems run much deeper than the mark on her face. Terra and her mother (and her two older brothers, before they escaped) are forced to walk on eggshells around their home for fear of being terrorized by her bitter and controlling father. Terra’s father suffered a professional humiliation, which cost him his credibility. Now he lives to humiliate and degrade the people around him, especially the members of his immediate family. Terra’s mom, Lois, is his primary victim.
Lois is always apologizing for everything. She’s one of those women who always put her needs and satisfaction last. She’s crumbled under the constant verbal abuse of her husband. She’s wracked with guilt about Terra’s birthmark (and is always trying to do ineffectual treatments for it.) Ever since Lois’s sister died in a travel accident a few years before Lois has buried herself in binge-eating and subsequent weight gain to try to insulate herself from the many painful truths of her life. Of course her eating and weight are continual fodder for her vicious husband’s tirades.
Terra secretly plans to escape her family, her boyfriend (who people think she should be grateful for, even though she doesn’t love him) and her stifling small town. She’s rushing her way through high school so she can graduate a year early. Her plans are carefully mapped out. But of course, her father finds a way to ruin her plans. Just when things are looking hopeless, Terra meets a most unusual boy who really understands her. Suddenly she finds herself being pushed in an unexpected, scary, and exciting direction.
Jacob is a Chinese boy adopted into a (fractured) American family. He goes for a Goth style because (he tells Terra) people are always going to stare at him. They stare because he doesn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of his white, blonde, all American family. He’d rather wear black clothes and eye-liner, so that they’d be staring at him on his terms, not theirs.
An exciting benefit of Terra’s relationship with Jacob is that Jacob’s worldly confident mother forms a deep bond with Terra’s mother Lois. Norah helps Lois expand her horizons and live up to her best potential. Norah recognizes Lois’s many talents and encourages her to monetize them. The four of them travel to China together.
NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL is an astonishingly deep and powerful novel that leaves a reader thinking about life and the real meaning of beauty. Justina Chen Headley is uniquely gifted at writing prose that is both light and witty, and remarkably serious and moving. NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL tells a tale of travel, discovery, true love and enlightenment. As always Ms. Chen Headley writes with an empowering feminist slant. NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL is highly educational and carefully researched. This book is a true gem. I would highly recommend it to women and girls of all ages.

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