Fiction, November 2019

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee. August 13, 2019. G.P. Putman’s Sons, 374 p. ISBN: 9781524740955.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

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. With prose that is witty, insightful, and at times heartbreaking, Stacey Lee masterfully crafts an extraordinary social drama set in the New South.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Discrimination, Mild language, Mild sexual themes, Racism, Violence

 

Book Trailer

Video Review

Reviews

Booklist starred (June 1, 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 19))
Grades 9-12. It’s 1890 in Atlanta, and Jo Kuan has a secret: she’s the anonymous author of the popular, yet polarizing, new agony aunt column “Dear Miss Sweetie.” After spending her life living in a secret basement room (a relic of the Underground Railroad) beneath the press offices of The Focus, a newspaper run by the Bell family, she’s picked up a masterful vocabulary to match her sharp wit, and the combination proves intoxicating to Atlanta’s young ladies. But if anyone found out that a Chinese American teenager was behind the column, she’d be run out of town or worse. Lee (Outrun the Moon, 2016) has concocted another thrilling historical novel, blending stellar plotting and a dynamic cast of characters with well-researched details and sharp commentary on America’s history of racism and prejudice. She pulls no punches when it comes to Jo’s experiences of being Chinese in the Reconstruction South: a meeting of Atlanta’s suffragettes proves unwelcoming despite their claim to want votes for all women, and though there’s stirring romance between Jo and the son of the Bell family, Jo acknowledges the difficulties in that path. But best of all is Jo’s first-person narrative, which crackles with as much witty wordplay and keen observations as her column. This spectacular, voice-driven novel raises powerful questions about how we understand the past, as well as the ways our current moment is still shaped by that understanding.

Kirkus Reviews starred (June 1, 2019)
Jo Kuan leads a double life: a public role as a quiet lady’s maid and a secret one as the voice behind the hottest advice column in 1890 Atlanta. Chinese American Jo is mostly invisible except for occasional looks of disdain and derisive comments, and she doesn’t mind: Her priority is making sure she and her adoptive father, Chinese immigrant Old Gin, remain safe in their abandoned abolitionists’ hideaway beneath a print shop. But even if she lives on the margins, Jo has opinions of her own which she shares in her newspaper advice column under the byline “Miss Sweetie.” Suddenly all of Atlanta is talking about her ideas, though they don’t know that the witty advice on relationships, millinery, and horse races comes from a Chinese girl. As curiosity about Miss Sweetie mounts, Jo may not be able to stay hidden much longer. And as she learns more about the blurred lines and the hard truths about race in her city and her own past, maybe she doesn’t want to. In her latest work, Lee (The Secret of a Heart Note, 2016, etc.) continues to demonstrate that Chinese people were present—and had a voice—in American history. She deftly weaves historical details with Jo’s personal story of finding a voice and a place for herself in order to create a single, luminous work. An optimistic, sophisticated portrayal of one facet of Chinese American—and simply American—history. (Historical fiction. 13-18)

About the Author

Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction.

Her website is www.staceyhlee.com/

Around the Web

The Downstairs Girl on Amazon

The Downstairs Girl on Barnes and Noble

The Downstairs Girl on Goodreads

The Downstairs Girl on LibraryThing

The Downstairs Girl Publisher Page

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