Book Review: 'The Downstairs Girl' by Stacey Lee
Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid by day, and by night she moonlights as Ms. Sweetie, an advice columnist for a local newspaper. As her column becomes more popular, Jo must work harder to remain hidden or else face the punishment for writing for the newspaper as a Chinese woman. While some work to uncover her, Jo works to uncover her family’s identity and secrets. She must decide if risking her safety for the newspaper and finally learning about her family is worth it.
As a Chinese-American and adoptee, I went into this story a bit wary of how it would impact me. I immediately fell in love with the protagonist, Jo Kuan. Her spunky and independent spirit had me rooting for her the entire time. Like many of us, Jo was able to find her individuality and strength through writing. Her journey of investigating her family resonated with me. One particular quote stood out and I was impressed that the author, Stacey Lee, could describe the longing to know your parents so well. “Wondering about my parents is a strange kind of agony, an itch that I can’t help scratching until it causes pain.”
The story continued to resonate with me as it describes a time in the South when people of color were experiencing segregation and racism. While the Chinese characters were considered “colored,” some people still saw them as more “in-between” than anything else. Despite being a fictional story, "The Downstairs Girl" reminded me of the struggles and challenges Chinese-Americans faced.
The plot twists and reveals about Jo’s family were a bit surprising to me. Although unpredictable, I thought a lot of the story was wrapped up too neatly. Jo toed a dangerous line by writing under a pen name and her confidence could have gotten her in a lot of trouble, yet there was not much fallout for any of her actions as the story continued. As a result, everything felt resolved, but a bit unrealistic.
Overall, "The Downstairs Girl" was a really powerful story. I found myself represented as a Chinese-American in this historical fiction; but even more so, the story resonated with my adoptee identity in ways I hadn’t expected.