Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult / historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a beautiful, sensitively told story of a young woman in 1950s San Francisco, discovering her sexuality, finding first love, and navigating her place in the world of Chinatown and beyond.

Lily Hu is a high school senior who loves math, science, and reading Arthur C. Clarke. She’s fascinated by the idea of rockets and space, and dreams of one day working alongside her aunt at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Lily is the oldest child of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and her world revolves around the neighborhood and its community. While she attends a nearby high school, her friends and her activities are all based in Chinatown too — until she starts to get to know Kathleen, a girl in her advanced math classes.

Lily and Kathleen — or Kath, as she prefers to be called — begin to form a tentative friendship after Kath accidentally picks up a newspaper ad that Lily had saved, a promo for a male impersonator’s appearance at a nightclub. Kath mentions that she’s been to the Telegraph Club once, and the two girls agree to sneak out late one night and go together.

Meanwhile, Lily is unsure what to make of the feelings stirred in her when she reads about Tommy Andrews, the nightclub performer, or when she spies a pulp novel at the local drugstore that features two scantily clad women on the cover. When she and Kath finally make it to the Telegraph Club, Lily’s eyes are opened, seeing women together in clearly romantic relationships.

As Lily’s story progresses, she and Kath explore their feelings and learn more about the secret underworld of gay life in San Francisco. At the same time, the “red scare” is bringing fear to Chinatown, as even naturalized or American-born Chinese people are threatened with deportation and pressured to inform on others. When Lily’s father’s naturalization papers are confiscated during questioning about communist activity in Chinatown, the danger strikes home, and Lily is confronted by the potential consequences her own actions could have on her family.

Last Night the Telegraph Club is a moving coming of age and coming out story, and also a well-researched and eye-opening look at a particular time and place in 20th century history. The author shares a great deal of information at the end of the book about her research, her intentions, who she interviewed, and even provides a wide-ranging bibliography for those who want to learn more.

As she points out, there isn’t a lot written about Asian lesbians in historical fiction. The topics covered within this book are a unique blend of LGBTQ+, Asian American, and San Francisco history, and they work together spectacularly.

Lily is a fabulous main character. She’s not flashy or outrageous by any means. A studious, smart girl devoted to her family, she’s really never stepped foot out of line prior to this point in her life. She struggles with the conflict between her identity, her emotions and desires, and her family duty. Lily is portrayed as a sensitive girl who might have truly thrived in the modern era, but because of the time and culture in which she’s born, there is no easy answer for her.

As a non-native San Franciscan myself, I’m always interested in learning more about the history of my adopted city, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club delivers. While many of the places and neighborhoods are the same, the city has changed in dramatic ways since then. I loved seeing all the familiar streets and landmarks mentioned as Lily and Kath and others explore the city, and appreciate that they venture beyond the areas often covered in popular media to include lesser known spots too, such as one of my own favorite places:

Judy had fallen in love with Ocean Beach the first time she saw it almost four years ago, right after she first arrived in San Francisco.

Although as Lily herself later reflects, you can’t always count on the weather:

She suspected it would be freezing out by Ocean Beach

On a more serious note, the response of Lily’s family to learning about her orientation is sadly typical of the time, but still incredibly painful to read:

“There are no homosexuals in this family,” she said, the words thick with disgust.

… and …

“There are studies,” her father said. “You’re too young for this. This is a phase.”

My only quibble with this book is that I wished for a little more at the end, between the last full chapter and the book’s epilogue. I can’t say much without entering spoiler territory, but I wish the events of the last chapter had been carried forward longer to show what happened in the ensuing months. The epilogue wraps the story up very well, but it’s almost too abrupt in its resolution. Still, overall, I’m happy with how things were resolved for the various characters, and felt so invested in Lily’s well-being that I wish I could check back in with her to see how her life turned out 10, 20, and 30 years down the road.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is engrossing, moving, and sensitive, with memorable characters and a fast-moving plot that manages to convey so much, so well. Highly recommended.

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