The Downstairs Girl by Stacy Lee, #111 review

Publication date: 13 August 2019

From the founding member of We Need Diverse Books comes a powerful novel about identity, betrayal, and the meaning of family.

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.

There are many things I love about this book set in Gilded Age Atlanta through the eyes of a Chinese American – Jo Kuan.

In an 1890 where segregation, misogyny, racism and many other heavy issues were strong underway, our protagonist who is an orphan Chinese in Atlanta with her parent-like elder, Old Gin navigates their path through Atlanta daily despite living there their whole lives. The reason? They are Chinese, the only Chinese in their town.

During the day, Jo works as a lad’s maid for the daughter of one of the wealthiest men with Old Gin. Despite growing up together as playmates, the girls are from two different planets. Their station and personality are complete opposites. At night, Jo puts her niche for the English Language and the clever way she strings sentences to use. She is the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie”.

She uses her platform to address society’s toxicity. And such boldness from a lady is most unacceptable in 1890. When her frankness was rewarded with backlash opinions about segregation and gender from the local gossips and media outlets, Jo faces a challenge of how to best tidy the messed up papers.

On the frontier, a letter from her past sets Jo on a search for her parents who abandoned her as a baby. When things get heated, Jo has to decide if she prepared to bring everything to light, including herself, a girl used to secretly living under the basement of a newspaper company / household.

I love this book for multiple reasons.

Firstly, REPRESENTATION in a fresh way that seemed familiar yet new!

Secondly, the writing here was a step above! It was an elegant swirl of frilly words, then comes the pen to slice off the “l” with a swipe and turn it to “t”.

Thirdly, THE QUOTES. My, my, my, I could read them all day long. Which was why this review took to long to write. I put it off for a month because even now, I still struggle to properly express my devotion to this gem.


I was truly sucked into the 1800s. I could hear, see and smell everything. It made me even more enthralled since I am a Chinese! When reading some Chinese words, I had to give a nod of approval for the way it was used. I’m charmed by the bustling town and the little people that live in the shadows of the Whites. I was terrified for their safety when walking down the streets or the double standards they faced. I was IN the book, dO yOu UnDeRsTaNd?!??

Thank you Times Reads for sending me a review copy. You have made my reading so much more confusing. Am I living in the 1800s or in 2021? Racism didn’t change much in 200 years #StopAsianHate

You can buy the book here

By elysianbooksish

The Bookish Faerie who loves to read and write, and bake too

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