The Downstairs Girl

The Downstairs Girl

by Stacey Lee
Published by: Putnam
Publish Date: 2019
Genre(s): Fiction, YA Historical Fiction, Chinese-American; Women’s Suffrage, Race,
HB&W Rating: 3.75
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Triggers: racism, sexism, violence (alluded to)

Synopsis

From the founding member of We Need Diverse Books comes a powerful novel about identity, betrayal, and the meaning of family.

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. With prose that is witty, insightful, and at times heartbreaking, Stacey Lee masterfully crafts an extraordinary social drama set in the New South.

Synopsis source: Goodreads

Review

My second book of 2022 and thankfully a great read. My first book of the year, Falling for Your Best Friend, I had to DNF 25% or so. Not good, but I digress. The silver lining is that it let me get to this book sooner, so yay!

Told from a Chinese-American girl’s perspective during the time of women’s suffrage in the post-Reconstruction south, this story covers intersectionality, racism, sexism, feminism and a love interest that hints at miscegenation – all topics that are still very much relevant today.

I had no idea that southern plantation owners brought Chinese people over to work their farms after the slaves were set free. This was something the author brought up in her note at the end of the book. One reason I love reading historical books (both fiction and non-fiction) is their ability to teach me something that some would prefer you to forget. Just another reason we need more diverse books out there, and I’m so glad that books like this one exist.

Jo was a great character. I loved her courage and her conviction, choosing to use her platform to help draw attention to inequalities between the races, sexes, and classes. She’s loyal, caring, and kind, even to people who aren’t those things to her, but she also doesn’t let people walk all over her.

The story did a great job of showing a very diverse list of topics, all from a very unique perspective. It was ambitious but well-executed. The plot felt a little lost at times, as this is definitely a character-driven book, but everything came together in the end. There were even some surprises that I didn’t see coming, which I always enjoy.

I also really enjoyed the supporting characters and I would love to read their stories as well. Especially Noemi’s story. Hint, hint to the author.

But what this story did extremely well is show the ability of words to facilitate change. Jo uses her alter ego to write words that made for real change, for example, changing the perspective of a woman riding a bicycle from something vulgar to something fun and innocent. I absolutely loved her Miss Sweetie responses, too. Many of them made me laugh out loud reading them, like the one about the woman writing why we have our monthlies and Miss Sweetie points out that the alternative is worse, “but at least they get to vote.” The snark is strong in this one. There are seriously some great nuggets in this book, both for humor and wisdom. I loved the lessons Jo shares in her narrative via the stories and proverbs told to her by her “uncles” and Old Gin.

This was such a great book, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a serious book but light-hearted and heartwarming too. If you enjoy historical fiction, this is worth a read, and because it’s also a young adult book, it’s not as heavy as some of the adult variety.

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Happy reading!


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