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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Downstairs Girl: There's A Reason It's One of My Favorite Books of the Year

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Few people stand out in 1890 Atlanta as much as 17-year-old Jo Kuan.  Although she was born in the U.S., her distinctive features proclaim her Chinese heritage for all to see, marking her as a foreigner despite her American speech and mannerisms.  The fact that she's a bit of an opinionated "saucebox" doesn't help her blend in.  Besides Old Gin, the elderly Chinese man who has raised her, Jo has no family to shelter her.  In fact, she and her adoptive father are squatters, living in hidden abolitionist tunnels beneath a printing shop.  

When Jo overhears her unknowing landlords discussing their failing newspaper's need for an "agony aunt" to up the rag's sales, she gets a brilliant idea.  Using a secret identity, she soon becomes an advice columnist by night.  Her day job as a lady's maid to a wealthy, obnoxious debutante gives her an insider's views into the glitzy lives of Atlanta's elite.  Using this insight as well as that she's gained from her own daily struggles, Jo uses the column to school the city about gender equality, racism, women's suffrage, and the cruel hypocrisy lurking under so many Southerners' genteel facades.  Soon, the whole city seems to be up in arms.  Everyone's dying to know the true identity of the outspoken "Miss Sweetie."  While Jo desperately tries to keep her secret under wraps, she finds an intriguing clue to the mystery of her unknown parentage.  Juggling her controversial advice column, a dangerous investigation into her own past, and even a surprising romance, Jo has more on her plate than she can handle.  Can she find the answers she's seeking?  Will Atlanta learn anything from Miss Sweetie's pleas for fairness?  Or will the lynch mobs come after her next?

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee is a quick, enjoyable read about one young woman's fight to belong in a world where she doesn't fit in for a multitude of reasons.  It touches on a number of issues, maybe too many for one book, but still, it's a thought-provoking historical novel.  Which isn't to say it's preachy or heavy-handed.  It's not.  In fact, it's funny, engrossing, and compelling.  Jo is the kind of heroine who's easy to like and root for—she's smart, loyal, hard-working, and brave.  She's surrounded by equally interesting characters, who make for a colorful, fun cast.  With all these elements combining against a vivid historical backdrop, it shouldn't be difficult to see why I enjoyed The Downstairs Girl so much.  It's one of my favorite reads of 2019 and I highly recommend it for both adult and teen historical fiction lovers.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, innuendo, and references to sex and prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Downstairs Girl from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.


  1. Yet another great review of this book. It’s on my list! I’ll need to move it up. Thanks.

  2. Stacy Lee is a name that always comes up for quality YA historical fiction. It sounds like she did a nice job capturing the time period too, which is what I sort of expect from a historical fiction book

  3. An A?! I am adding this one to my Christmas wish list. Thank you for the review


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