I have read every single one of Stacey Lee’s books at this point. And so I knew I had to get my hands on an advance reader copy of The Downstairs Girl. This has to be my favorite, hands down, Stacey Lee book ever.
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.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
The Downstairs Girl hits the right spot. Stacey Lee’s books always make me wonder what I would have done if I was in the protagonist’s place and The Downstairs Girl is no exception. Jo is a heroine you can root for because she is compassionate, always speaks her mind, and has a fierce sense of justice. But at the same time, what I loved about The Downstairs Girl is that it looks at Jo’s experience as a Chinese American girl living in the South where racism runs in the streets.
Racism and Jo
Often we talk about the treatment of black people during this time period and Lee’s book examines the place that Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans, occupied as neither privileged enough for their skin color to be inconsequential, nor fitting into the rules imposed on society to segregate black people.
It’s about the fact that Jo is treated differently because of her appearance, fetishized for her looks, while also being oppressed, prejudiced against, and having opportunities taken away from her. What options are open to Jo for her future? It is in the ways people of color were excluded from white feminism and suffragettes, the way Jo is looked down upon and suffering from the same exclusionary acts.
Jo is my favorite Stacey Lee character. How could I not love her? Not only is she opinionated, in the best way, she isn’t afraid to be honest. She has dreams, wants, and desire and some seem too big for her world. But she has the strength, bravery, and dedication to pursue them, even when it terrifies her. Through her, we are asked – how do we enact change? How can we hold onto what we have, what we fought for, even if it’s meager?
Through Miss Sweetie, we witness the power of a voice. The difference one person can make. How it can galvanize a community, the importance of speaking your mind and the ability to change people’s minds (even with its consequences and danger). Through Jo we see how we can learn to bring forth our identity, to not let our secrets and basement scare us into living in the shadows away from the sun.
The Downstairs Girl is full of mysteries, quests for social consciousness, and a dash of romance. And yet, at the same time it’s almost timely. With the model minority myth and various intersectional identities, there can be this mentality that other groups have to ‘wait their turn’. Not only does it echo the past, it also mirrors moments in the present. It’s about starting to defy, taking risks and meeting challenges, people who support you, cheer you on, care for you and are there good and bad.