It was only in January 2021, Malinda Lo published her latest young adult historical fiction novel, Last Night At The Telegraph Club. Yet, it’s already on track to be a classic in LGBTQ+ literature. But Last Night At The Telegraph Club is not Malinda Lo’s first queer romance or WLW book. Ash, another one of Lo’s novels, reimagines the Cinderella fairy tale with the main character as a lesbian teenager. A Line in the Dark is another young adult mystery novel with a lesbian main character. However, the historical nature and intersectional lens of Last Night At The Telegraph Club makes it a must-read of Lo’s.
Last Night At The Telegraph Club presents the story of a Chinese American protagonist
Last Night At The Telegraph Club follows the journey of seventeen-year-old Chinese American, Lily Hu as she falls in love and discovers herself. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s, Lily begins to question herself and her future as she enters her senior year of high school.
Lily’s senior year is a time marked by curiosity, exploration, and change. Her passion for rockets, outer space, and STEM continues to grow, conflicting with rigid familial, societal, and cultural expectations. She becomes friends with Kathleen Miller, her first white friend, distancing herself from her childhood Chinese American friends. Together, they secretly attend the Telegraph Club, a lesbian bar in San Francisco, gradually exploring and realizing their sexualities. However, this isn’t simply a novel with LGBTQ+ representation; Lily Hu’s journey unfolds amidst the Red Scare, homophobia and sexism running rampant.
The book narrates Lily’s point of view alongside a historically accurate timeline of the 1950’s
Lily Hu is an easy main character to emphasize with, follow, and understand in Last Night At The Telegraph Club. Her narration is introspective and attentive. She maintains a perfect balance between courage and naivety, which is challenging to find in many main characters. Her perspective reveals a ravenous desire to see the otherness in people that she feels in herself. On some level, she understands she is different from what others think and expect of her. Event then, she refuses to be swallowed by confusion and isolation any longer. After attending the Telegraph Club, Lily recognizes and perceives the potential otherness in other people that she craves:
“She realized, with a jolt, that the city must be peppered with women who frequented the Telegraph or similar clubs; women who watched performers like Tommy Andrews, made friends with each other, made girlfriends with each other. At each intersection she cast skittish glances at the women waiting for the light to change, wondering if she was one of them too, or her, or her.”– Excerpt from Last Night At The Telegraph Club
Beyond Lily’s narration, readers notice the thorough research Malinda Lo conducted to create a historically accurate novel. The timelines scattered throughout the book, including historical and fictional events relating to the characters, added to the novel’s authenticity. I found it fascinating to read about this intersectional history largely left unexplored in fictional literature. The timeline helped guide me as a reader through the experiences and environments of each character.
Malinda Lo’s intersectional approach towards identity
The novel’s intersectional lens is invaluable. What makes Last Night At The Telegraph Club so compelling is Lily’s journey to unearth her intersectional identities—as a lesbian, a woman, and Chinese American—during a time when the world held little respect for these identities. Lily fights to understand herself and her growing identities in this unsupportive environment. When Lily finds a queer romance novel in a convenience store that she reads later on, she “decodes” herself:
“She felt as if she had finally cracked the last part of a code she had been puzzling over for so long that she couldn’t remember when she had started deciphering it.”– Excerpt from Last Night At The Telegraph Club
Not only does Lily struggle to understand herself but she also wrestles with choosing between her developing identities, especially considering the impact they have on one another. As a Chinese American, Lily and her family are under constant scrutiny for communist tendencies. Evidence of having these beliefs, even if unfounded, often resulted in deportation. This made Lily’s queer identity even more of a threat to her and her family’s lives.
At the same time, Lily craves a future in STEM, specifically exploring space travel. STEM is a male-dominated career field, unusual not only for women but also for Chinese Americans at the time. Lily’s status as a woman and a Chinese American restricts and limits her in this field. Being a Chinese American also forces Lily under the spotlight with unwanted attention for being queer. But the bright lights and spotlight of the Telegraph Club end up showing Lily the very answers she needs.
Going beyond a queer romance
By the end of the novel, Lily comes to embrace and discover all of her identities by not giving any up. She claims her place in the world; she dares for more than what’s expected of her from cultural, familial, and societal obligations and restrictions.
What the cover might not show is this book is about more than finding one’s queer identity or queer romance. It’s a story about dreaming of things much bigger than you or the world (like outer space). It’s about experiencing your first love, understanding familial cultures, trauma, and conflict. It’s about growing up in Chinatown during the Red Scare, living in San Francisco, being a teenager, and childhood friendships that fade.
Regardless of the darker tones and moments of the narrative, Last Night At The Telegraph Club manages to imbue an aura of comfort and warmth consistently. The intersecting themes of internalized homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, trauma, and repression could have dominated the novel. Yet, the broad takeaway is one of belonging and self-discovery. Despite the existence and persistence of these hardships, there is a vibrant counter-culture of warmth, belonging, identity, love, and found family.
Minimal critiques of Last Night At The Telegraph Club
One of my only critiques of Last Night At The Telegraph Club pertains to the flashbacks from Lily’s relatives. Though these chapters expand the cultural context and give depth to the characters, I felt they halted the story’s flow. These chapters disrupted the novel’s chronological progression since some of the timelines overlap with each other. However, the journeys explored in these chapters unveil the heartfelt stories and perspectives of immigrants and children of diaspora in a personal, informative way that Lily’s perspective could not reveal. I only wish Malinda Lo organized or formatted these chapters differently.
One critique other readers might have of Last Night At The Telegraph Club is the story’s pacing. The book isn’t as fast-paced or action-packed, which might discourage many readers. But I realized this historical fiction novel is not about thrilling, action-filled, suspenseful moments. Rather, this book excels in its detailed, beautiful depiction of the minor details from discovering your authentic self to your first love from the 1950’s to Chinese American culture.
Overall, the well-researched nature of the story, along with its skillful presentation of intersectionality, cements this novel as one of my favorite reads of the year. Not only is this novel a beautiful, heart-wrenching read, it also educates readers on relatively unknown perspectives of historical events. It’s a genuine representation novel, illustrating how it’s possible to live as a woman, a lesbian, and a Chinese American in a world that denies these coexisting identities. Last Night At The Telegraph Club encourages its readers to find their place in the world, to dare for more, to uncover and embrace their true selves without fear or hesitation.
The next time you find yourself at your local library or bookstore, take the time to make this novel your next read. That being said, this novel may be triggering for some with its mentions of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny/sexism, and miscarriage. Therefore, caution is necessary before reading.
My rating of Last Night At The Telegraph Club: