book review | The Downstairs Girl

Hello, friends! This review contains mild, vague spoilers.

Historical Fiction has stealthily become my favorite genre of late! I have quite a few historical books on my TBR list, including My Calamity Jane and The Jane Austen Society, one of which contains a great number of werewolves and one of which does not. This past week I enjoyed Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl, a moving story about family and identity in the late 1800s. The novel features hats, horses, and possible poisonings, oh my! Let’s get to it…

By day seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.

While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light. (Goodreads)

When readers first meet Jo Kuan, she has been fired from her position in a milliner’s shop. Jo’s employer admits that she creates lovely, unique silk knots in record time, but claims that Jo is too opinionated when it comes to their well-to-do white customers. Jo protests that these criticisms reek of racism rather than genuine concern.

It’s a fitting introduction to the novel, which addresses Jo’s struggle to understand her role in an increasingly segregated city. She and her caretaker, Old Gin, are Chinese, living in Atlanta towards the end of the 19th century. Battling discrimination and racism, the pair secretly lives in the basement of a newspaper print shop. Jo thus grew up in hiding, but also in an environment in which words carry great power and currency.

The stakes of the book are personal. While the cover jacket may boast of newspaper dramatics and of threats from a local crime boss, those stories tend to exist in the background of The Downstairs Girl. Instead, Jo’s growing boldness regarding her work and her family drives the plot. This is a character-based book, for sure; conflicts wrap up rather easily, and characters don’t stay angry for long. Still, the book addresses large themes like racism, intersectionality, and poverty, and it treats such subjects with the complexity they warrant.

Like my fave Ruta Sepetys, Stacey Lee exposes readers to an area of history they likely didn’t learn about in school. I appreciate Lee spotlighting this fascinating subject; YA historical fiction needs more diverse stories and voices. The novel also showcases important solidarity, with Jo giving her Black friend Noemi earnest support as they spar with racist white suffragists. Important messages, all around!

Jo is one of my favorite protagonists of late. She is progressive, relatable, and witty – especially in her work as Miss Sweetie – and I delighted in reading her newspaper columns. Throughout the book, Jo’s work as an “agony aunt” reflects her growing courage, but also her firm sense of self; she jumps from providing household tips to penning progressive manifestos with ease. Miss Sweetie’s columns and letters appear at the start of the chapters throughout the novel, giving readers insight into side characters’ woes. The columns are a fun framing device, and they never feel too gimmicky!

notes

  •  The Downstairs Girl is cover cousins with Lovely War, but I think a more fitting companion is Jennifer Donnelly’s These Shallow Graves. Donnelly’s novel is also about an aspiring girl journalist near the turn of the century, and, funny enough, her protagonist is also named Jo! (Louisa May Alcott would be proud)
  • Speaking of covers, The Downstairs Girl is such a gorgeous book. 
  • Stacey Lee is a part of the team at We Need Diverse Books, which I urge everyone to follow! Their work is fantastic and vital.
  • This was the first book I added manually to my StoryGraph account! I can’t recommend the site enough, but be sure to check out Rubyfruit Reads‘ review.

what have you been reading lately? 

xx

lulu

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