Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Content Warnings: homophobia, lesbophobia, racism, parental abuse, family trauma, misogyny, racial slurs, deportation, references to miscarriage, references to police brutality.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
“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.
This was teatimelit’s book of the month for March, the first one I’ve joined and I’m so happy this one was chosen!
I’m usually not one to read historical fiction, so I was surprised how much I loved this novel. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is one of those books I wish I could have read while I was a teenager, because I know I would have strongly related to Lily and her questioning her identity. Malinda Lo’s writing is beautiful as it depicts Lily’s life in 1950s San Francisco during the Red Scare and as she learns more about her sexuality, her ambitions, and her identity as a Chinese-American.
And yet she couldn’t say the word the book had used to describe those kinds of girls: lesbian. The word felt dangerous, and also powerful […]
☆ My favourite things about Last Night at the Telegraph Club: ☆
★ Lily as a protagonist & her development
★ slowburn love story
★ historical setting
★ Descriptive background for Lily’s family
It’s easy to become immersed into Lily’s life through Lo’s descriptive writing, from the way she describes about her family and her wish to be a dutiful daughter, to the exciting nights at the Telegraph Club where she begins to learn about the queer community and become more confident in her identity. The thrilling nights sneaking out to the Telegraph Club were especially captivating. Lily’s sheer awe about being around other lesbians and queer people, when she deeply struggled with that part of her identity, was palpable.
There were so many scenes and quotes that added to the depth of the story and make it very relatable coming-of-age story despite being set over 50 years ago. Lily’s inner turmoil is illuminated in small moments that resonated with me, from the times she would feel shame if she looked at a woman for too long, or the intense interest she had when she stumbled upon a romance novel with two female protagonists. I loved the latter especially – her shock and interest in finding and reading a book with a sapphic romance felt so real, and I think its an experience that is shared with a lot with lgbt+ youths when they first see themselves represented in media and feel Seen for the first time. (Funnily enough I had this same experience when I was younger and read Lo’s debut novel Ash.)
This only shows how important positive representation for lgbt+ groups is, as it can be the first or only time we feel known and not alone, and give us the confidence to accept who we are. It’s strange and also heart-warming to think that, maybe, this book might be that moment for other young people learning to accept their sexuality.
Are you like the girls in the book too? Because I think I am.
The romance in the novel is really beautiful and well developed. Kath and Lily’s relationship is a slow-burn, tentative and sweet, it was wonderful seeing how they opened up to each other. It was nice to see someone Lily could talk to about her passions and ambitions too, and it seemed very poetic that both she and Kath were interested in flying and space – the wish to discover the skies and beyond, to see that there’s so much to life than what’s on the ground. I wish we had gotten to see more about Kath and her life, but I am happy with what we got.
On the bright side, we got a lot about Lily’s family, including POV chapters about their lives. The short chapters we got from Lily’s family also added depth to the story and the characters. It gave some more insight into their lives as Chinese first- or second-immigrants living in America, and showed the similarities in their stories as immigrants, wanting to stay close and connected to their Chinese culture while assimilating to America. There was something warm and real reading their experiences. You also see get to see this a little from Lily’s friend Shirley; “I mean, don’t you ever wish you weren’t Chinese. You wouldn’t have to live in Chinatown, and you could do anything you wanted,” was a quote I loved, as I could relate to wanting to “fit in” with my white peers. It showed that this is not just a story about Lily and her sexuality but also as a child of Chinese immigrants living in a turbulent time in the US.
At its heart, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a wonderful novel that also discusses a lot of important topics like internalised homophobia and racism. Above all it’s a book about self-discovery and self-acceptance, and is perhaps one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve read.
Once again I have to say I’m glad that this was chosen for teatimelit’s March book of the month, and you should definitely check out Mary’s review on the book too!
Have you read Last Night at the Telegraph Club? Let me know your thoughts!