The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee tells the story of a young woman of Chinese ancestry, who works as a maid for the wealthiest family in town, but by night secretly works as an advice columnist for a progressive newspaper.
The Downstairs Girl is the fourth book by author Stacey Lee, who is a fourth-generation Chinese-American.
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.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Penguin Young Readers Group/G.P. Putnam and Sons Books for Young Readers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Even from the description, I knew I was going to love this book. Not only is it historical fiction about a woman born of immigrants, but it’s also based on the strength and willpower of a female narrator. I love the concept of a woman journalist who is fighting for equality in the only way she can – with words. I also loved the cultural struggles at play within the book.
Not only does Lee provide significant historical detail of the plight of Chinese-Americans during the late 1800s/early 1900s, but also the serious racial issues as well. Not only does Jo, the central character, experience struggles at the hands of racism, there are many other characters that also deal with this issue, namely the other maids who are African-American. Race is definitely a central issue of this story, and I loved seeing Lee work through all of it with such a stunning background of wealthy mansions and slums in Atlanta, Georgia.
I also loved seeing historical details, like that of Woman’s Suffrage and the advent of new, liberating technologies, like the bicycle. The whole idea of the “Miss Sweetie” advice column was a genius move for Lee to drop bits of historical context here and there and to address the issues of racism and sexism.
I also enjoyed seeing Jo fight for the rights of others, even though she was dealt a bad hand herself. Not only is she trying to survive with her grandfather, while secretly squatting on another family’s property, she’s also having do deal with being maid to a girl who is basically the most stuck-up, selfish, and racist person, in addition to being snooty rich. I loved Jo and her friends, especially the family who run the newspaper she works for (secretly). Everyone is so genuine and earnest!
For me, the best part about this book is the historical-fiction base. Lee does credit to this time period, especially telling it from a Chinese-American perspective. It was nice to see such diversity in a time period that, for the most part, is usually only shone through a white lens.
Literary Value: 5/5
I devoured this book, no lie. It’s hard for me to sit down and read a book straight through, but I nearly did so with this one. The story was so engaging and unique. I loved all the characters, and the pacing was really well done. There’s just enough action, twists and turns to keep the interest up.
I also think that Lee did an excellent job of painting an accurate portrayal of turn of 1900s Atlanta. I felt like I could easily visualize the world these characters were living in and not just physically, but also in the customs and manners of the period. It felt like I was watching a period-drama, and I loved that about this book.
The characters in this book are really well done! Jo was fantastic. I loved her spunky attitude, her empathy and her cleverness. She was everything I wanted in a strong female character. But all the peripheral characters were great, too! The other maids, Nathan and his family, and even the rich family Jo serves are all so well written. They feel like real people and it just makes the story that much more vivid and realistic.
Entertainment Factor: 5/5
This book was everything I wanted and more. I loved the story and the journey I was taken on over the course of these pages. I loved seeing things from Jo’s perspective, since she had such an honest, earnest view of the world and wanted to make it better not just for herself and her family, but for others.
What I found most entertaining about this book was Jo’s wittiness, her repartee with Nathan and with others. She made me smile. I also loved that I totally didn’t see the ending of the story coming. It went in an entirely different direction than I was expecting, which was a breath of fresh air, to be honest. I loved it and it felt very satisfactory to me.
All of the characters and the well thought out story-line made this book extremely enjoyable to read. I laughed and I was saddened, I was given hope and I felt anger at the injustice displayed. I felt pretty much a whole range of emotions, but the book never made me feel overwhelmed. I think Lee is an excellent storyteller and she has crafted such a fun, unique read with this book.
Cover Art: 5/5
One of the main reasons I picked up this book was because of its gorgeous cover. I love it, and that’s really unusual for me, since I don’t normally like faces/actual people displayed on covers. I don’t like being provided with a pre-set idea of what the main character or any of the characters look like.
But for some reason, with this book, I don’t mind so much. I think it’s just too beautiful for me to care, really. And I think it does a good job of representing important elements of the story – like the hat, because haberdashery is one of the main components of the book. And having an Asian face on the cover, I think, is really important, because it immediately offers representation. There’s a lot of diversity in this book, which is one of the best things about it, and I like that the cover is stating that loud and proud.
Overall, the colors, the image, the text, all come together to make one fabulous cover that I love to look at.
Overall Rating: 5/5 Hats 👒👒👒👒👒
This book was fantastic. I loved everything about it, from the characters to the plot to the setting. It was everything I want in an historical fiction novel, and I think it really raised the bar of YA fiction, not just because of diverse representation, but also with clever, well-thought out plot and well-developed setting.
I honestly would recommend this book to everyone, because I think it’s that good. It’s got action, it’s got a really moving family story, it’s got a little romance. I also particularly love the representation of Chinese-American history and how that ties in with the racial inequality that makes up a large part of America’s history.
It’s a wonderful book, I highly recommend that you check it out!
Thoughts & Thanks
Thank you so much for reading this post. I would love to hear your thoughts on this book if you have read it. If you’re considering reading it, let me know what you think, once you do!