A review by literarypenguin
The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

adventurous emotional hopeful informative inspiring medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


 The Downstairs Girl follows a 17-year-old Chinese American young woman named Jo Kuan who lives in Atlanta Georgia in the late 1800s. She lives in the basement, more like an underground tunnel, of a print shop with her father figure Old Gin. When she learns the newspaper needs subscriptions to compete with their competitors, She writes an Agony Aunt column and sends it to the newspaper under the name Miss Sweetie. My thoughts going into this book were that it was going to be a heavier read with heavier themes but I was surprised to find that it was more of a comfort read with a couple of heavy topics sprinkled in. There wasn’t as much action except for the last couple of chapters involving a horse race that has been building throughout the whole book. As a person that does read a lot of Historical Fiction novels, it was great to learn about this period of America’s history and from a group of people in that time that you don’t hear too much about.

The writing was very detailed and a joy to the senses. The way the author describes the scenery and the attire of the time is spot on. You could just picture in your head the people and the places the book took you to. She also does a great job describing the South in the 1800s and the norms that were common back then. Atlanta was explained beautifully and you could see a difference between how certain people lived as opposed to others.

This book revolves around Jo and her double life as a housemaid by day and an Agony Aunt column writer by night. She tries to keep her two lives separate from each other and keep them a secret from people she knows. If anyone were to find out about her being a writer she could find herself in serious trouble. I did love the ways Jo would hide her identity I thought they were very clever and well thought out. The book did set up some great conflicts that built up to a great climax with the horse race that brought all these conflicts to their resolutions. What I liked the most about the story was reading about Jo and her experiences and finding out more about who she is and where she belongs in the world. I did predict some of the twists and could see a lot of them coming so they weren’t that surprising to me personally.

Jo Kuan was a very interesting and complex female character and a great main character! I loved how she stood up for what she believed in and didn’t take nonsense from anyone. She was an open-minded woman with her thoughts and opinions and she didn’t hesitate to share them when the time was right. One thing I did love about her was her love for America and wanting to see America become a better and more welcoming place for everyone but she didn’t forget about her own culture and beliefs. She loves her Chinese culture but she recognizes that there are some things in her culture that she doesn't believe or want to follow. Just like her love for America, she loves certain parts of America but others she doesn’t believe in or follow. I thought that made her a very fascinating and relatable character! Old Gin was a wise and caring father figure to Jo and you could see how much he cares for her and wants to see her happy and thrive in this new country. Even the side characters got some attention and most were very interesting and added more to Jo’s story and the story overall. Caroline started as a prissy and privileged girl who thought very highly of herself and looked down on others. The more the story went on the more you learned about why Caroline acted the way she did and you sort of started to feel a bit bad for her. The characters were my favorite part of the story and I enjoyed them very much!

This book takes place in Atlanta Georgia in the late 1800s. The book doesn’t take place in too many places as it just centers around Georgia and the town of Atlanta. What I liked about worldbuilding was seeing how the world started to change when certain laws and rules were put into place. The streetcar that Jo and Old Gin would ride every day went from a safe and peaceful place for them to a place where they didn’t feel welcome or safe because of laws being put into place. How women were treated at this time was also present and the lengths Jo had to go to hide being Asian made sense because she knew she would be treated less than in certain situations even had the threat of being arrested.

The book itself was a comfortable read but did explore themes of Racism, Sexism, and Inequality. Jo had to go to great lengths to find work but her being Asian and a woman did not always work in her favor. She and Old Gin couldn’t even find a house to live in because of their race as most people would not let them live at those properties. They had to resort to living in a basement just to have a place to live in. But they made the best of it and that was inspiring! Jo even had to deal with Racism, losing a job over her skin color. She had to take what she could get and make the best of it. That was one thing that inspired me about Jo was that she made the best out of an otherwise bad situation and she didn’t let it dampen her spirits and her hopes and dreams. The author even talks about The Suffragists and their fight for women’s equality and rights.

In conclusion, this book was a pleasure to read and was better than I expected it to be! It had its moments of serious themes and a great climax toward the end but overall it was a good book. Some of the twists were predictable but that was just for me. I still think this book is worth giving a try just for the fact that it shines a light on a group of people during that point in history and shows a great female character. 

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