Activist teens will love ‘The Downstairs Girl’ despite flaws

Stacey Lee adds an unusually long list of ingredients, including historical details, subplots, and social causes, to her novel.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee, Putnam, 384 pp.

I really wanted to like “The Downstairs Girl,” the young adult novel by Stacey Lee. I loved "Outrun the Moon," her 2016 book, and had pleasant expectations for a follow-up with similar elements: YA, historical fiction, a plucky Chinese protagonist, and an emphasis on social justice. 

Unfortunately, “The Downstairs Girl” lacks the grace and confidence of “Outrun the Moon.” Lee adds so many powerful flavors to her writerly stew that readers may struggle to taste the important ones. 

Suffragism! Streetcar segregation! Interracial love! Women riding bicycles! Improper meetings between young folk! Illicit affairs! Elderly health! Millinery! Newspaper rivalries! A hotly anticipated horse race! Confederate monuments! Searching for one’s birth parents! Blackmail! A pseudonymous author! Women choosing not to marry! Intersectionality! Mansplaining! Entrepreneurship! Pants!

These topics, and more still, are each given equal weight, constituting a veritable flood of narrative. It helps to know the issues in “The Downstairs Girl” are historically accurate, of course. If there’s one thing to know about Stacey Lee, it’s that she does her research. But though “The Downstairs Girl” may hit the spot for some, it’s a real mouthful.

In 1890s Atlanta, Jo Kuan is abruptly dismissed from her hatmaking job for being, as the proprietress says, a “saucebox.” Customers bristle at fashion advice coming from someone of a different race, even though Jo’s skill at knot-tying makes her one of Atlanta’s better milliners. Jo can’t help it – if she sees something amiss, she speaks up. She later snipes, “It occurs to me that men are the real sauceboxes, but no one ever calls them sauceboxes because they are allowed to say what they want – at least the white ones.”

Prodded by Old Gin, her guardian since her parents abandoned her as a baby, Jo reluctantly returns to her childhood job as lady’s maid for Caroline Payne, a wealthy girl who tormented Jo as a child. Jo and Old Gin live in a secret basement apartment, originally built for the Underground Railroad; the homeowners, who run a local newspaper out of the house, know nothing about it.

That newspaper may fold, though, at which point the owners will be evicted, and Jo and Old Gin will have to move. To drive up subscriptions and save the paper, Jo offers herself anonymously as the acerbic columnist “Miss Sweetie,” dispensing sharp counsel and increasingly bold editorials on race, gender, tradition, and local politics.

Now, if that were the extent of it, “The Downstairs Girl” would be a home run. There’s more than enough to play with there. But with Lee adding spice after spice, what transpires is a blast of heat that buries all the beautiful, critical detail in an onslaught of subplots.

In one thread, for example, streetcar segregation becomes law in Atlanta. People of Chinese descent, like Jo and Old Gin, find themselves caught in the crossfire between whites and blacks. They’re not black, says the streetcar driver, but a white rider snaps that they sure aren’t white. Where are they welcome?

Similarly, Jo and other women of color are rebuffed when they try to join suffrage events. The white woman in charge tells them bluntly, “The cause doesn’t need you,” and that a list of their priorities “are not women’s concerns, they are colored concerns.”

Noemi, a black cook, rejoins, “They’re not colored concerns, they’re human concerns, and women make up half the humans. If we all work together, we can make some real change.”

This exchange illustrates another clunky element of “The Downstairs Girl.” Though the issues and reactions are on target, the dialogue swings wildly between fussy 19th century formality and extremely 21st century vernacular. Of course women are half of humanity; of course real change can result from unity. My quibble is with the modern phrasing, not the content.

Similarly, passages are cluttered with folksy, Poor Richard’s Almanack-style aphorisms (“Shoulders are like pavement, underappreciated for the job they do holding one up in the world”) and labored Gilded Age similes (“A community is like [a] shawl, and once you are a part of it, you tie your fate to the threads closest to you.”). After the streetcar dispute, Jo observes, “Atlanta has always had her rules, but tonight, someone has planted a foot on her back and yanked the stays even tighter.” Later, a local tough is described as “unsavory as bear-grease pomade” and “an opportunistic night crawler, digesting dirt so as to transform it into dirt of a richer nature.”

The parade of adages charmed me at first but wore thin after the umpteenth time. If it were just Jo’s interior monologue, I could embrace it as character voice, but it seems to afflict the entire cast. 

Ultimately, “The Downstairs Girl” feels far more forced than Stacey Lee’s previous work. Jo Kuan has a prodigious talent for knot-tying, but metaphorical knots tangle up her story and make the book a battle. Still, social critique and historical detail may make “The Downstairs Girl” worth it for teens and young adults, especially those with an activist heart. For me, it’s one to borrow, not to buy.

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