Jo Kuan is leading a double life. By day she works as a quiet lady’s maid, but by night she’s the voice behind the most radical advice column in 1890’s Altanta.
Jo is used to living life on the margins – invisible except for the occasional looks of disdain – but she won’t let it hold her back. While her priority is making sure that she and her father remain safe in their hideaway beneath a print shop, she still has ambition. And strong opinions of her own that she begins to share in a newspaper advice column under the pseudonym ‘Miss Sweetie’. Suddenly all of Atlanta is talking about her ideas, though little do they know that the witty advice comes from a penniless Chinese girl.
As curiosity about Miss Sweetie mounts, Jo’s secret identity may not stay secret for much longer. And as she learns more of the hard truths about her identity and her country she must find the courage to decide between being herself or staying invisible…
I came across this book on Twitter, cited as being an accurate representation of being an asian american (which wasn’t comething that I knew anything about being several generations of english) and I was intruiged. I was honestly a little wary of reviewing it with such an accolade attached, knowing that given my own sheltered upbringing I could never really give true credit to the accuracy of this claim, or fairly write about this theme. I will respectfully not be discussing racial segregation, as I do not believe that I am entitled to an opinion on something which I have not been subjected to myself.
The double life described in the blurb is a storyline that I will never not love and I knew that I wanted to read it. Several days later there it was sat on my lap, and I knew that something good was about to happen.
I took ‘The Downstairs Girl’ with me on a road trip to the beach and back, thinking it would be a nice way to pass the time, but I was wrong. Time was not passed, it was devoured – I opened it for the first time on the way home, worn out but cheerful, and found myself utterly enveloped by 1890’s Atlanta and the tiny hideaway under the print shop. In no time at all, I was home and halfway through the book. Barely a moment later my other half is insisting that sleep is more important than the book and that I can’t possibly finish it before I go to sleep – I did put it down, but I maintain that it was possible.
I adored the spunky Jo, who took the title ‘saucepot’ and ran with it as the story develops. She is fun, bold and fiery-spirited, and made for a lively viewpoint throughout the book, which followed her moving on from being fired to making a way for herself and her family in a world which stacks the odds against them continually. Her race, gender and social standing all compile to make life an uphill struggle for Jo.
Should women ride bicycles or aspire to marriage? Should coloured people have the vote? She addresses these questions under the cover of her ‘Miss Sweetie’ persona, and I loved the rapid character development after she adopted this dual personality. I also found a great deal of naughty delight in the snippets of conversation she hears about herself and her own opinions in the public settings – it tickles something inside me, and had me eagerly turning the pages for more.
Noemi and Robbie added real affection and companionship to the story, though for me the real heart stealer of this book for me was Old Gin. Stacey Lee has written a beautiful book that I will be keeping for many years and revisiting when I need to enjoy something a little cheeky – I will absolutely be looking out for other books by this author.