This was one of my most anticipated books at ALA. I was hoping upon hope that I’d be able to get a copy of this book because I just knew I was going to love it. And wow, I sure did.
Title: The Downstairs Girl
Author: Stacey Lee
Release Date: August 13, 2019
Genres: YA Historical Fiction
I was given an ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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.
This book explores what it’s like for a young Chinese American living in the south in the 1880s. I have never before heard of, nor have I ever considered, what it would be like for the Chinese in the south, so I’m very grateful for Stacey Lee for writing this amazing book and educating me. I’m having a hard time explaining the plot. The synopsis does an excellent job, and I’m worried that I’d be spoiling something. I wouldn’t say that it’s fast-paced, though I never felt bored. The plot is very exciting though–Jo writing a column in secret as she lives beneath the house of a wealthy family. One thing I loved was the ending. Not everything is tied up in a pretty bow. Not everything is fixed. And I appreciated that. But what I really loved the most were the characters, so I’m going to move on over there.
Jo Kuan is witty, smart, capable, and stubborn. From the moment I felt her voice in the words, I was entranced. She just feels so real. I felt her emotions, her heart ache, her pain, her joy. Everything in her life was unfair, but she dealt with it–even made her situation better at times. The other characters in the story are just as complex. Her father figure, the young woman she works for, her love interest. They could have been living, breathing humans. So complex, with dreams and terrors of their own. There is some romance in this book, but it doesn’t superimpose itself over the plot. It’s sweet and charming, very shippable. The way Jo and her man deals with their relationship felt very realistic for the period of time depicted.
One thing I adore about historical fiction is feeling immersed in the setting. I’ve never been to Atlanta, Georgia, but Stacey Lee made me feel as if I were there. The way she weaved the culture of the Chinese and African Americans, the way the social and racial issues were handled…it was both fascinating and terrifying.
This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s eye-opening and educational, as well as a very fun story. I will definitely be reading more of Stacey Lee’s books, in the future and in her backlist. I can’t wait.