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

book review | The Fountains of Silence

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

I loved Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the EasyWith its impeccable research and compelling depiction of New Orleans’ historic underbelly, the novel quickly joined the ranks of my all-time favorite books.

I read Easy recently, and Sepetys’ work was on my mind. So, as the weather in my state grows hot and humid, I thought it natural to revisit The Fountains of SilenceTaking place in the summer of 1957, Sepetys’ latter novel explores life in the period following the Spanish Civil War, when Madrid was under the control of fascist leader Francisco Franco. I found the story, and its deceiving golden tones, fascinating.

Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography–and fate–introduce him to Ana, whose family’s interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War–as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel’s photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city (Goodreads).

Sepetys’ main characters may be Dan and Ana, but she crafts her tale using multiple perspectives. Readers learn of the importance of persistence from Rafa, Ana’s earnest and optimistic brother. Puri, their young cousin, gives us a peek into the psyche of a woman questioning the society she has always obeyed. Julia, Ana’s older sister, struggles to provide for their family and survive amid suspicion. We even get brief interludes from a young bellhop and a matador-in-training. Quotes from US officials and ambassadors separate the chapters, providing real-life context for readers unfamiliar with Franco’s regime. 

The cast of characters is large, and it requires readers to process a lot of information. Luckily, Sepetys has experience in creating memorable supporting characters (Out Of the Easy’s French Quarter misfits were my favorite part of that story!) In this novel, highlights included: Carlitos, a preteen hotel employee whose love of Texas renders him Dan’s confidant, Ben, a grizzled (albeit trope-y) reporter/romantic sage, and Miguel, a kind photography store owner. With so many characters, though, a few inevitably fell flat: I struggled to understand the book’s stance on the elder Mr. Matheson, for example. But overall, a cast of vibrant personalities inhabits The Fountains of Silence and its vision of midcentury Madrid.

While the collection of fleeting perspectives can be unsettling, Sepetys’ structure is no mere gimmick. Rather, it complements the novel’s setting: the glimpses into characters’ lives reflect the voyeuristic nature of Franco’s Spain. The set-up worked especially well during the novel’s confession sequence, in which four young people successively talk to a priest. Those few pages manage to confront moral ideology, desire, and religion’s role in corrupt power structures.

I enjoyed The Fountains of Silence immensely, but it is not an easy read. Sure, the love story is charming and warm and moving. But like the novel’s tropical, wine-washed setting, dark tones lurk underneath the breezy surface. At no point does Sepetys shy away from the complexities of life under a dictatorship: The Fountains of Silence contains chilling descriptions of death, hardship, and heartbreak, and it has a slow, immersive plot.

Readers (both young and old! Sepetys’ writing targets a YA crowd but dances the line between teenage and adult literature) should take time to sit with the novel’s messages. I latched onto the opening line, which Rafa first utters while working at a butcher shop in Vallecas. His words haunt the book. 

“They stand in line for blood.”  

notes

  • I bought this book last year from my favorite local bookstore. If possible, support local booksellers and libraries during this time. Consider buying your next purchase from Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis.  
  • Sepetys’ earlier novel, Salt to the Sea, also has multiple perspectives. I am so eager to check out the rest of her work!  
  • Fountains of Silence, in structure and theme, reminded me of the BBC’s World on Fire. On a literary front, Sepetys’s novels recall Julie Berry’s books. (Berry is one of my absolute favorite authors, and I will forever maintain that The Passion of Dolssa is a gosh darn masterpiece.) 

xx

lulu