Hello readers! I’m back from a bit of an unplanned blogging break, and as much as those empty spaces on my posting calendar spreadsheet stress me out, I think it was much needed. Anyway, I’ll talk more about that in my upcoming recap, but in the meantime, I’m sharing a review for this super fantastic book!
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.
Stacey Lee’s most recent novel is a stunning work of historical fiction that explores often-overlooked pieces of America’s past and had me gasping at every plot twist. Here’s why I loved it:
✒️ Badass and loveable main character
Jo is a wonderful heroine: smart, human, and steadfast in her beliefs. She has a strong sense of justice, and I loved watching her find her voice.
✒️ A fresh time period and perspective
The perspective of Chinese people in the 1890s American South is not something that we learn much about in history class nor YA literature. Stacey Lee so interestingly portrays this viewpoint, and I learned a great deal about the time period through reading The Downstairs Girl.
(For instance, did you know that Chinese people were brought to the US after the Civil War to replace enslaved field workers? Me neither, until reading this book. You can read Stacey Lee’s very interesting author’s note about her research process here.)
Lee obviously did a lot of research for this novel, and reading about what life was like for various types of people in the South at this time was fascinating. The book explores so much, from racism within the suffragist movement, to streetcar segregation, to interracial relationships, to gender roles and expectations around marriage.
✒️ Plot twists that I didn’t see coming
The Downstairs Girl does NOT hold back with the plot twists. Lee did such a fantastic job, because all of the information is there in the details for the reader, but you don’t realize their importance until the twists hit you. The story is so subtly and beautifully woven together, and it’s so satisfying to see all the little pieces connect.
Family is a major theme in the novel, explored both through Old Gin, Jo’s loveable stand-in father, and Jo’s desire to know her parentage. I love a good family plot, and this one does not disappoint.
✒️ Diverse cast with great side characters
The Downstairs Girl has a great cast of complex and diverse characters. Noemi, a Black woman who works as a maid alongside Jo and becomes involved with the women’s rights movement, was a particular favorite of mine.
Caroline (the teenager whom Jo works for), though horrible, was nevertheless interesting as well. While I definitely didn’t like her because of the way she treats Jo, Caroline’s complexity and development throughout the novel were compelling to read.
✒️ Newspaper elements mixed in with the narrative
The book’s spunky heroine, in addition to being a maid, is also secretly an advice columnist who calls attention to issues of race and gender under the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.” Articles of Jo’s and replies to her fan mail are interspersed throughout the novel. Jo’s frank, matter-of-fact writing is unconventional and, at times, hilarious.
Dear Miss Sweetie,
My sisters and I wonder why women must suffer a few days each month?
Bloated, Crampy, and Spotty
Dear Bloated, Crampy, and Spotty,
Because the alternative is worse, although they do get to vote.
(Please note that quotes are from an uncorrected galley and may appear differently in the final copy.)
✒️ A small amount of (very cute) romance
There’s a lot going on in this book, which is why I liked that the romance subplot is very small, but man, is it cute. The love interest is so supportive and he also has a really adorable dog, which is very important.
✒️ Great writing
Stacey Lee is phenomenal, and Jo’s witty voice is just perfect. I’ll leave a few of my favorite quotes from the book as evidence:
Being nice is like leaving your door wide-open. Eventually, someone’s going to mosey in and steal your best hat. Me, I only have one hat and it is uglier than a smashed crow, so if someone stole it the joke would be on their head, literally.
Like other ladies of her class, she has a habit of leaning into her words as if to squeeze out all their juice.
But then trying to understand Mrs. Payne is like trying to unfold a wet newspaper, impossible to do without tearing the pages.
The Downstairs Girl has already been added to my 2019 favorites shelf on Goodreads, and I can’t wait to read more of Stacey Lee’s work. (Her upcoming novel, which is about the Titanic, sounds especially interesting—you can read a bit more about it in this interview.
Diversity Rep: Chinese main character; multiple POC major characters, including Chinese characters and Black characters
Warnings: racism, including anti-Chinese slurs; mentions of lynching; mentions of rape; sexism; violence; nudity
(I feel like this is a good comp title because, while the two books are about completely different characters and settings, they’re both historicals that explore perspectives that are often erased.)
I loved this book so much! If you’re planning on reading it, or if you already have, I’d love to chat about it in the comments.