Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Acclaimed author of Ash Malinda Lo returns with her most personal and ambitious novel yet, a gripping story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s.
“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 will be an illuminating read for modern teens who may not know much about what it was really like to be a queer teen in the 1950s.
It’s 1954 and Lily Hu lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She’s heading into her senior year alongside her lifelong best friend, Shirley, who is also Chinese American. One day in a class, Lily is put in a group with Kathleen Miller, a white girl she’s known for years but never really been friends with. Something sparks between them—maybe just a new friendship, maybe a bond over being the only two girls left in their upper-level math class, maybe something more, something Lily doesn’t really understand or have the words for. It takes reading a surreptitiously reading a lesbian pulp novel in the back corner of a store for it all to finally click into place for Lily. But now what?
For Lily, there is so much more going on in her life than just beginning to understand what she may feel for Kath. The FBI takes her father’s citizenship papers when he refuses to give information on one of his patients who’s being investigated for Communist ties. Lily’s friendship with Shirley is under pressure, too. Shirley doesn’t like Lily being friends with Kath (and “warns” her about Kath) and freezes her out until she needs her help for the Miss Chinatown pageant. Lily feels the push and pull between her various identities, always feeling singled out for all the ways she is “other.”
Through repeated clandestine trips to the Telegraph Club, a lesbian bar, to see a “male impersonator,” Lily and Kath come to understand more about their identity and the nearby lesbian community, especially when they are befriended by some of the older lesbians who frequent the club. But that hardly makes anything simpler—in fact, it just complicates things. How can Lily possibly live her truth in this era? And even if she and Kath feel the same way about each other, now what? More sneaking, hiding, being afraid of being seen?
This layered story also offers brief chapters about Lily’s mom, dad, and aunt from various points in time, helping flesh out more of what was going on, historically, at this time in the United States and specifically in Chinese American relations. Extensive back matter on the era and culture at the time provide additional insight. As can be expected of a historical fiction story set in the 1950s, there are plenty of racist and outdated terms used and the story is built on a foundation of the homophobia of the time (this is also discussed in the back matter.)
The way the story ultimately unfolds may be kind of predictable in the sense that it’s probably easy to guess how things may go for Kath and Lily—it’s hardly going to be an easy road for them. Though I would have liked to see some scenes or threads of the story fleshed out more and followed through with better, this was ultimately an enjoyable and thoughtful, personal look at one girl’s journey to self and identity. Pair with Robin Talley’s Pulp (set in 1955 Washington D.C.) for an even more comprehensive look at what it meant to be a queer teen in the 50s.
Review copy (digital ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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