I’ve praised Stacey Lee’s books everywhere since her debut Under a Painted Sky in 2015, and I was really, really excited to dive into her latest novel, The Downstairs Girl, set in Atlanta in 1890. Below are some thoughts on aspects of the book that I loved.
The Downstairs Girl will be released on August 13th, 2019. Please note that quotes are taken from an uncorrected ARC and may not reflect the final text.
A big thank you to Shenwei for passing their copy on to me!
About The Downstairs Girl
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.
What I loved about The Downstairs Girl:
Jo Kuan and the characters
One of my favourite aspects of the writing in Stacey Lee’s previous books was the distinctive, engaging and humorous voice of Chinese-American protagonists. This was fully showcased in The Downstairs Girl — Jo Kuan is perceptive about society, strongly opinionated, and offers a unique perspective of Atlanta, which is usually seen through a white lens. This shines not only in the narration, but in the engaging excerpts of her columns as ‘Miss Sweetie’.
Someone needs to blow the trumpets of change. Someone who has viewed society both from the top branch, and the bottom, from the inside of the tree, and from the outside. Someone like … me.(p39)
Along with this, so much about Jo was simply fascinating. She secretly lives in the basement of a print shop, and had a really unique upbringing: by her adoptive father, Old Gin; the string of Chinese ‘uncles’ who had previously lived with them; and through the conversations she overhears from the Bells, who own the print shop.
Towards the later parts of the book, I felt for Jo on an even deeper level — as the story about her parents and past unravels, she’s faced with revelations which she had never expected. I admired her so much for the strength which she found, and needed in order to go on, when her understanding of herself and her world is completely shaken.
Several of the supporting characters also really won my heart — Jo’s adoptive father Old Gin, the wonderful Noemi, and Nathan Bell from the print shop. Each of them were well-rounded and had a unique relationship with Jo.
A voice against injustice
If I had to narrow it down to one word, I would say that The Downstairs Girl is a story concerned with injustice. Specifically, a large part of the plot is connected to progressive ideas regarding women, the suffragette movement, and the intersectionality of this with race, in the movement led by the suffragists. Through Miss Sweetie’s columns, and well-developed characters like Noemi, a Black woman who also works at the Paynes’ and becomes involved in the movement with Jo, the book raises the issue of exclusion and marginalisation.
“They’re not colored concerns, they’re human concerns, and women make up half the humans. If we all work together, we can make some real change.”(p248)
Further injustices which Chinese-Americans in the South specifically faced during that time in history are also portrayed or hinted at. These historical aspects are always woven into the plot and Jo’s voice, so that it never feels excessive, but instead thought-provoking and deeply tied into the experiences of the characters.
Interwoven storylines and twists
One thing which was a surprise to me about The Downstairs Girl was the multiple storylines throughout the book, and how all of them tied together beautifully and unexpectedly at the end. This is probably a good thing to keep in mind before you read it — I’d started off thinking I would whizz through it in the way I’d done with Stacey Lee’s previous books, but soon found myself introduced to many more characters and plotlines than I’d expected.
However, in a series of twists which left me completely stunned, everything came together in the last part of the book — the advice columnist plotline, Jo’s experiences and relationships with people she works with or for at the Paynes’, the mysteries about Jo’s parents, her relationship with her adoptive father, the suffragette movement, and more.
When I immediately started rereading after finishing the book, I found so many clever hints and foreshadowing that I hadn’t paid enough attention to at first. So, I’d suggest being attentive to the details in The Downstairs Girl and reading through it slowly so you’re fully immersed in what’s going on — it’ll increase its emotional impact.
Honestly, it was really difficult to write a spoiler-free review for this book because so much of what I loved about it were the aspects (vaguely described above) involving the revelations and the ending — something you really need to experience for yourself as a reader.
I’m really happy to see that The Downstairs Girl received so many well-deserved starred trade reviews, and it’s also the first of Stacey Lee’s books getting an Australian release! 😀 The author’s note in the ARC (not included in the final copy, though she posted it on Instagram here) and the book overall really shows how much of an inspiration Stacey Lee is to writers everywhere in her determination to challenge the erasure in the historical narratives which we usually have ingrained.
It’s not too late to enter the preorder/library request campaign for the book, which is open internationally (I’ve received my door handle, which looks lovely, and the images on it directly refer to aspects of the book). Be sure to pick this up in August!
Are you planning to read The Downstairs Girl? What are some other historical fiction books you’ve read and enjoyed?