Book Review

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

This was a lovely YA historical novel about a Chinese American young woman coming to terms with her attraction to women, exploring queer community in 1950s San Francisco, and growing strong enough to stand up for herself and the life that she wants to create for herself.

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.

Goodreads

This was a lovely YA historical novel about a Chinese American young woman coming to terms with her attraction to women, exploring queer community in 1950s San Francisco, and growing strong enough to stand up for herself and the life that she wants to create for herself.

Stories about the 1950s often leave me feeling one of two ways: they either lure me into a believing that it was a simpler, nicer time, or else the racism, homophobia, and sexism makes me incredibly grateful to have born in the 80s. Although there were definitely moments when Lily’s world was sweet and appealing, I was mostly stuck on the horrifying elements: Lily endures consistent racist comments and actions whenever she leaves the safety of Chinatown, and the homophobia of the day is of the “will get arrested if found publicly gay” variety. It’s not good!

(As I write this, I am aware that racist comments and consequences for being publicly queer are not relegated to the past. They are a current reality for many people.)

I cannot imagine having the bravery Lily shows throughout this book. She knows something is different about herself, but it isn’t until she finds a paperback novel with two women on the cover that she realizes she isn’t alone. Watching her slowly fall in love with her new friend Kathryn was swoonworthy, all the more so because they know they are sharing something forbidden.

The true star of this book is, fittingly, the Telegraph Club. Oh, how I wish there were a lesbian bar like this in Vancouver! With performances by male impersonators, new friends and lovers sharing drinks, and the good times continuing at house parties after closing, Lo paints a vivid picture of a community that easily ensnares both Lily and myself.

A bit of warning: While the ending is hopeful, it is also a story true to its time. There are very real familial consequences for Lily, and this might be triggering to some readers.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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