Title: The Downstairs Girl
Author: Stacey Lee
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.
Stacey Lee is one of my favorite authors; I was obsessed with her novels last year, so when I found out that she was publishing a brand-new historical fiction offering in August, I put it on hold at my library immediately. I was lucky enough to get my library’s first copy, and it’s been sitting at the top of my stack for a few weeks now. As soon as I was finished with Vicious, I dove in, excited and expectant. The Downstairs Girl may just be my favorite in her entire body of work. Told from the point of view of a Chinese-American girl who longs for a voice and a place in the world that refuses to accept her for who she is, Jo Kuan is the best milliner in town, and she knows it. But when she is asked to leave by the shop’s proprietor, her life takes another unfortunate turn: She is asked by her father, Old Gin, to stay on as a ladies’ maid to an old childhood nemesis, Caroline Payne. Being the ladies’ maid for the Paynes, though, provides both solace and strife, and Jo must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for the life she so desperately wants.
I’ve read three books total by Stacey Lee, and I’ve loved them all, but I think The Downstairs Girl is my favorite. One of the big reasons I love historical fiction is that it offers a perspective of the past that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Jo Kuan is a Chinese-American woman who lives in post-Reconstruction Atlanta, and she is desperate for a voice, to be heard. Never mind that she and her father figure, ailing Old Gin, are living in the basement of a white family’s house. Desperate to make a living for herself and the only adult who cares about her, she throws caution to the winds and begins writing an ‘agony aunt’ column under the pseudonym Miss Sweetie. Pleased to finally have a voice when before she was only expected to be silent, Jo begins to work with the suffragettes in Atlanta, and discovers something surprising about herself in the process.
This book was nothing less than incredible, and it might be Stacey Lee’s best work yet. Diverse books for the win, as always! I’ve never before read a novel from a Chinese-American woman’s perspective, and Jo’s words crackled and danced off of the page. It felt like she was sitting in my living room with me, chatting with me over a cup of tea like an old friend. I also adored the way that she bucked against the social mores of the time; she was going to do what she needed to do to protect her family and be fulfilled. I liked many of the other characters in the book: Lizzie, Jo’s coworker, Billy Riggs, Noemi and Caroline and the Paynes. But my favorite was the family that Jo and Old Gin lived under, especially Jo’s love interest. I also enjoyed the way that Jo, Noemi, and the other characters clashed with the white suffragettes in Atlanta. And that ending! Oh, my gosh, it was nothing less than perfect! The bottom line: This story of gumption, spunk, faith and bittersweet joy stole my heart and gave it wings. I loved The Downstairs Girl, and I cannot wait to see what Stacey Lee has up her sleeve next! Next on deck: Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman!