I loved reading Outrun the Moon, and can’t believe Stacey Lee managed to outdo herself with another stunning novel.
The Downstairs Girl is an immediate new favorite and I absolutely adore not only the entire story, but Jo Kuan herself and her innate spunk. From Jo to her questions about her past to Lee’s intricate worldbuilding of 1890 Atlanta, Georgia and the tensions that existed, The Downstairs Girl is another masterpiece from a beloved historical fiction author.
If you’re someone who moans that historical fiction is too white, you need to pick up all of Stacey Lee’s books and her tasteful stories that highlight Asian women in times and places (Western settings) when their stories were rarely told.
Jo Kuan was just the best.
I absolutely adored Jo and all her spunk. This is something that I’m seeing a lot in Lee’s stories, but her protagonists, contrary to popular belief, didn’t bow down to the pressures of their time. The all rebel and remain strong and individual even throughout hardship.
Jo was so powerful and rebelled in her own ways—with her anonymous advice column, with the way she sought to look after Old Gin, the old man who took care of her, with the way she faced her work head on. I loved her fierce rebellion and how she strove to create a space for herself and kept her spunk, even when she had to compromise to achieve her goals.
She still had her flaws, but I think any reader would find her fierce and amazing yet still relatable and not too far away from a real, flawed person. Plus, she has such a fun and silly sense of humor, sometimes sliding in perfect lines and getting flustered and it was endearing and relatable and lovely.
I loved how Stacey Lee effortlessly juggled so many smaller storylines.
This is what made The Downstairs Girl a five star for me and really bumped it up to the next level.
Stacey Lee wove together so many different smaller storylines. From Jo exploring her family history, trying to figure out what Old Gin was hiding, interacting with the (predominantly white) suffragists, understanding Caroline (the highborn girl she works for), eavesdropping for the family who lives on the house above them & runs a newspaper, crushing on a boy at the newspaper she secretly writes for, and seeing the nefarious Billy around town.
There wasn’t a giant swooping plot, but a bunch of little ones that all worked together in subtle ways. A lot of the ones I mentioned worked with each other, and I loved that about the story a lot. It’s a perfect balance that there’s tangible stakes, while it not being a heavy read.
This is a time period where Chinese people were rarely represented in media.
One of the things I was really pleasantly surprised by was how even though this was the Deep South in 1890s, it wasn’t presented in a way that made this a really tiring read. Lee managed not to heavily gloss over the racism while still keeping The Downstairs Girl a lighter read.
I love how this story shines light on a Chinese girl in a time period and place where the Chinese were rarely represented, and this is one of the reasons why I love Lee’s stories so much.
I will put out a small trigger for the word “colored” appearing a lot to refer to black people (and Chinese people, depending) because it is what was common in the time, but I realize that this can be triggering to people, and it’s good to note to readers that “colored” isn’t a word generally accepted to refer to black people or POC.
Overall, another stunner.
I love Stacey Lee’s books a lot and this was just as amazing as Outrun the Moon in its own way. Extremely powerful, and I’d highly recommend everyone pick it up.
It’s good for younger middle school audiences too, and Lee does everything with a touch of humor and respect, to make such wonderful stories.
Jo Kuan is working once again as a lady’s maid for her former employer after being laid off of her past job. It’s not easy being Chinese in 1890 Atlanta, but she and Old Gin have managed to carve out a small home for themselves in the secret basement below a print store.
But with Old Gin doing mysterious things, the horse races coming up, and Jo taking the risk to anonymously submit articles and write an advice column for the newspaper in the house above Jo & Old Gin. Soon, Jo will discover new things about her past and understand where she’ll be going in the future.
Thank you so much to Lili @ Utopia State of Mind and an unnamed donor for sending me this ARC to read!