‘The Girl Downstairs’ offers enjoyment but leaves no lasting impact


Andrea Butler

“Perhaps whites feel the same way about us as they do about ladybugs. A few are fine but swarms turn the stomach,” Jo Kuan said in the book “The Girl Downstairs” by Stacey Lee.

Andrea Butler, Staff Writer

As someone who reads and enjoys young adult novels, I loved this book a lot, but as someone who understands and analyzes texts, I can say with certainty that it is a young adult book.

Young adult novels typically stay in their niche, and this book was no different; however, the historical setting used in the book sets it apart from the stereotype.

The protagonist of “The Downstairs Girl,” by Stacey Lee, is 17-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American who lives in Atlanta, Ga. in 1890. Surviving each day is a struggle, but with her job as a hat maker, she lives a quiet, if unsatisfactory, life. Kuan is a firey free spirit, yet is weighed down by the enigma of her parents.

When the opportunity arises to write a column anonymously for a failing newspaper, she jumps at the chance to let her voice be heard, no matter the consequences. However, when her identity is threatened, Kuan is pushed into the spotlight and along the way, she discovers truths she never wanted to learn.

One of the many reasons I enjoyed the book was because of Kuan’s personality and wit. All of the comments she made throughout the book about the people around her, and especially her responses to the fan letters for her column, amused me.

Additionally, all the loose ends in the book were tied up by the end. Everything had a place by the final chapter, which amounted to a very satisfying read.

However, her personality is one of the reasons that I found the book a bit one-dimensional. If she had been as outwardly spoken as she was in the book in real life, she would have been forced to learn to stay quiet in social settings at a young age and wouldn’t be a “sauce box” at age 17. 

I understand that Americans in the late 1800s, the time in which the book is set, could have had a more progressive stance when it came to Chinese immigrants; however, the number of people that were outwardly kind to her was many more than I’d expect for that historical background. Given that the Chinese Exclusion Act was just seven years before, the number of accommodating people was much too high.

That being said, the majority of people did display more negative than positive reaction, which was enough for me for this book in particular. For the story chosen, the characters and surroundings match; it’s just not particularly close to being 100% historically accurate.

The revelation near the end was shocking to me, which made me love the book more because the anticipation was killing me until then. A book that can build up suspense without it being too obvious is impressive and makes for a fun read.

Of course, a little bit of romance had to be included, and while it didn’t detract from the story, I think it would have more of an impact if the love affair had stayed as harmless flirting and not escalated.

All in all, “The Downstairs Girl” is an excellent book if you want a refreshing story that’s easy to read. So if you’re looking for something more complex, maybe choose your next book from the literary canon.

Rating: [star rating=”4″]