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 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.
- Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
- Author: Malinda Lo
- Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
- Genre: Contemporary, Historical Fiction, YA, LGBTQ+, Romance
- Age Range: Young Adult
- Trigger warnings: abandonment, parental abuse, family trauma, sexism, misogyny, racism, racial slurs, deportation, death of a loved one, homophobia, internalized homophobia, miscarriage, police brutality
- Rating: ★★★★
Last Night at the Telegraph Club was our March pick for teatimereads, and I’m glad we got to read it! This book is an important one. Set in 1954, Lily is a Chinese American girl who is trying to get through highschool, and be a respectable Chinese daughter. But she’s also a closeted lesbian in a time where homosexuality is a crime.
Malinda Lo has a lovely writing style, writing 1954 San Francisco Chinatown in a way that feels so real. You easily get lost between the pages, with lush descriptions and lovely prose. Malinda Lo knows how to write places, and write them well. But as well as writing places well, Lo writes her characters wonderfully. Lily is a brilliant protagonist. Her journey of self-discovery makes for an interesting story, and you’re rooting for her and Kath from the minute they’re introduced and established as our romantic leads. Lily is Chinese-American and is just trying to be the perfect daughter. She works, does homework, and balances friendships, all while trying to figure out who she is and her place in the world. Lily is instantly likeable – she’s everything I enjoy reading about in a young adult protagonist: sensible and kind. At no point did I think her decisions were out of character, and she goes through a lovely character arc throughout the novel.
Meanwhile, Kath, our second protagonist, and love interest, wasn’t as developed. We didn’t really get to learn much about her, except that she wants to be a pilot, and she frequented the Telegraph Club long before she met Lily. Despite not knowing much, their relationship was paced nicely, and felt satisfying when they finally became a couple. It felt as if Kath didn’t have more of a purpose other than just being Lily’s first love, and the person that helps her find herself. But that’s okay! It’s not Kath’s story, it’s Lily’s, so I didn’t really mind that she wasn’t as developed as she could’ve been.
My favourite part of this novel was the Chinese culture. Sprinkled throughout the novel were Chinese traditions, food, and languages, which were so wonderful to read about! I don’t know a lot about Chinese traditions, especially historic ones, so it was super interesting to me. Malinda Lo even states in the author’s note that she used historically accurate language when writing in Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a lovely detail that some may have overlooked, but it adds so much to the story and the atmosphere she created. Scattered throughout the novel are timelines, allowing the reader to easily follow the historical events alongside our protagonists.
I loved reading the alternative point of views. We got to learn a lot more about Lily’s parents and her aunt, offering an explanation for their actions and motivations throughout the present-day storyline. We learn about their hardships in their own youth, dealing with wars and political tension amongst other things, adding depth and complexities to their characters. It made these otherwise background characters feel very real and very authentic.
One of my main issues with the novel is the pacing. It felt slow in some places and rushed in others. It felt very jumpy, with the timelines mentioned before pulling the threads together to make it cohesive. It sometimes took away from the reading experience, trying to figure out what had happened in the time we skipped. For my personal taste, I prefer my novels to have a flowing timeline, so the timing in Telegraph Club wasn’t for me. My biggest issue came with the epilogue. I won’t go into much detail as to avoid spoilers, but it left me unsatisfied as a reader. I wanted more, and I felt like I wasn’t given an ending that I felt was acceptable for such a wonderful build up. It’s a shame that the book ended on a note I didn’t particularly enjoy, but it was otherwise a wonderful novel!
Overall, Last Night at the Telegraph Club was a wonderful read, and I’m very glad the tea party chose it for our March pick! It’s a lovely coming-of-age story set in a time period we don’t usually get to read about in young adult fiction, so it made a nice change. Lily was a great protagonist, with a great story to read about. Watching her grow into herself and finding herself was such a joy, as she goes through a journey that is so satisfying to follow along with. Her relationship with Kath is satisfying, as we get to see the build up from when they first meet to when they first kiss. You get a satisfying pay off for investing your time and emotions. This book deals with so many hard topics, such as homophobia, xenophobia, communism, and many others, but it doesn’t take away from the charm that is Telegraph Club. Lo has carefully constructed a book that is just a wonderful experience to read. Despite some minor issues with pacing, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a read you definitely want to be picking up soon. Links to
Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Jan. 19, 2021). Her novel A Line in the Dark was a Kirkus Best YA Book of 2017 and one of Vulture’s 10 Best YA Books of 2017. Her novel Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and was a Kirkus Best Book for Children and Teens. She has been a three-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Malinda’s nonfiction has been published by The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The Huffington Post, The Toast, The Horn Book, and the anthologies Here We Are, How I Resist, and Scratch. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their do