Friday, September 13, 2019

Review: The Downstairs Girl

Books like The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee always turn me into That Person.  The Old Person who shakes her fist at the "young whippersnappers" who don't realize "how good they have it nowadays" because "back in my day we read discarded newspapers left in the snow and the backs of old cereal boxes."  OK, not really.  But oh my, the wonders you can find in Teen Fiction in this day and age!

Jo Kuan is seventeen, lives with her "uncle" Old Gin (the man who raised her), and is making her way working for a milliner in Atlanta.  Well, until Mrs. English has to "let her go" never mind she's light years a better employee than her white counterpart.  Old Gin tells her no problem! She can go back to work for Paynes', one of Atlanta's wealthiest, most elite families.  The problem being that Jo will be a ladies maid to daughter Caroline, who is a spoiled and spiteful Southern bell.  But work is work and frankly, Mrs. Payne is paying her well.

Complications arise though when their housing is threatened.  For years Jo and Old Gin have been squatting in a basement underneath the home and business of the Bell family, who run one of the many newspapers in Gilded Age Atlanta.  The basement was once used by abolitionists, so it's very secretive and tricked out with all sorts of handy features like a "listening tube."  Which is how Jo knows the newspaper is in trouble.  If the Bell's go belly-up, that could spell doom for Jo and Old Gin.  They need to drum up sales, and Jo thinks she has the answer - an Agony Aunt column.  Which she writes and drops off anonymously.  And since Jo wrote it?  Well, there's plenty of sass, spunk, and controversy...which soon follows.  But hello?  Controversy sells.  The Bell's business is soon booming!

Sprinkled in between Jo navigating work at the Paynes' and writing the Agony Aunt column (while working to stay anonymous) is the story of her past.  She never knew her parents and other than saying she was literally left on his doorstep, Old Gin is tight-lipped on the subject.  Naturally, this being Teen Fiction, Jo's past eventually comes home to roost.

Lee starts this story with a number of threads, a number of characters, and eventually braids all those threads to reach our final conclusion.  It's kind of slow going in the beginning, with an array of secondary players and Jo's life juxtaposed between dealing with Caroline Payne, looking out for Old Gin, struggling with the secrets of her past, and trying to help the Bell's without blowing her cover.  Especially to Nathan Bell who Jo feels like she practically grew up with - just, you know, hiding underneath him in a old abolitionist's basement.

The author does an excellent job of addressing the harsh realities of Jo's life in Atlanta as one of a small population of Chinese, on the cusp of Jim Crow laws taking root.  There's racism and sexism, exclusion from the burgeoning suffragette movement (votes for women - but white women only thankyouverymuch) and yet there's a buoyancy to the narrative.  Jo knows her reality, but that doesn't make her powerless, and watching her navigate her way around obstacles is half the fun.  Anytime she backed Caroline into a corner was worth the price of admission alone!

While definitely Teen Fiction, this is a book I think many historical fiction and romance fans will enjoy.  This is definitely "romantic elements" and while I wanted MORE romance (I always want MORE romance!), I ultimately think the authorial choice to leave that part of the story as is was the best route to take.  This is ultimately a story of Jo's present reconciling with her unknown past and the complicated choices women throughout history have had to make for a bunch of super annoying, destructive and sad "reasons."  Buy it for a teen in your life, but maybe read it and enjoy it for yourself first.

Final Grade = B+


willaful said...

Yes! YA books were just so *dire* when I was a kid. Also, I had to get to the library walking uphill both ways. ;-)

Wendy said...

Teens love the "dire" books though - not much has changed there. But yeah. We had Sweet Valley High (blergh), updated Nancy Drew (which I liked but outgrew by the time I hit 13), and the dire "someone has anorexia or dies of cancer" books. Now? You can literally find everything in YA. It's so unfair LOL

willaful said...

I didn't mean the context so much as the style.... what my mom would call "thin and fishy." Very little there, there. We have such great writers now. Anyone who says adults shouldn't read YA can suck it.

Wendy said...

Ahhh, yeah - I know what you're driving at. I always struggle with what to call that and usually end up falling back on "simplistic" although that doesn't always fit...