As a Chinese girl in the South, Jo Kuan has experienced a great deal of injustices: getting fired from jobs without reason; struggling to find work; sitting in the back rows of the streetcar; and most recently, working as a maid for the pompous Caroline Payne. So when she overhears of an opening as a columnist for the Focus newspaper, an avenue to vent her frustrations and address societal intolerance, it hardly requires any thought. Writing under the name Miss Sweetie, she challenges discriminatory and arcane societal norms, stirring up a fair amount of discourse, both the positive and negative sort. Yet, controversy is the least of her problems. Discovering debts unpaid and a muddled family history, Jo seeks out an unscrupulous individual notorious for trading information and works to unravel the secrets she’d been deprived her whole life.
Within the first few pages, Stacey Lee assembles the tone of The Downstairs Girl in one very powerful and provocative line: “perhaps whites feel the same way about us as they do about ladybugs: a few are fine, but a swarm turns the stomach.” At the heart of this novel, Lee augments awareness of racial and gender prejudices rampant in the late 1800s, history swaddled in an enjoyable and altogether surprising arc. In spite of its rather gradual and leisurely-paced beginning, chock full of mundane and seemingly inconsequential tidbits, the plot snowballs, growing in substance. A few chapters in, I’d thought of this book as a bike with no wheels; it had a great foundation, but it wasn’t going anywhere. On the contrary, it poses an intriguing story that throws a lot of the unexpected your way.
One such uniqueness, alongside the twists of the plot, was Miss Sweetie’s brief advice columns heading each chapter. Jo imbues a spunky humor into each of her responses, making for an entertaining little excerpt for readers. Entertaining, yet the excerpts are also insightful to who she is and what she believes as a character.
Miss Sweetie is outspoken and forthright while Jo bites her tongue and keeps her opinions muzzled, despite her indignation. This chasm between Jo and her pseudonymous self shapes her into a spunky and likable character who grows into her own confidence. As for the characters in Jo’s life, I enjoyed their roles as well and found many of their stories held promise, yet I do wish their backgrounds had been pursued a bit further, especially Old Gin’s. Jo’s elderly cohabitant and stand-in family member evokes a level of intrigue that’s contagious, and I really wanted to dive deeper into his story, as well as Mrs. Paynes’. Given the book’s first-person perspective, written from Jo’s POV, I can understand why their stories remained quite surface level, however.
The romance of the story mirrors that air of subtlety, creeping upon you with barely-perceptible moments and quiet hints. And it works. Though the romance is a small element, its delicate, scarcely-touched upon nature pleasantly complements the story. While it may feel as though the romance is of little consequence, Lee clues you into Jo’s suppression and denial of her feelings, and this more understated romantic approach adds authenticity, especially given the time period.
Moving, thought-provoking, and historical, Stacey Lee, quite like her protagonist, writes a compelling piece.