Hi everyone, I hope you’re keeping well! This month I was super excited that one of my most anticipated releases of 2021 was going to be one of our Sapphic Stories Bookclub picks of the month! Although my preorder came in right at the end of the month, I managed to finish it approximately an hour before discussion and I absolutely adored it!
Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBT, Young Adult
Synopsis: “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.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a vibrant and heartfelt sapphic historical fiction novel that follows Lily Hu who stumbles upon an advert for a male impersonator in a newspaper and her curiosity gets the better of her. When a classmate, Kathleen Miller, picks up the dropped newspaper cut-out, Kathleen reveals to her that she has been to the impersonator’s show before and Lily, excited to find someone to share this excitement with, asks her to take her along. The two visit the Telegraph Club – a lesbian bar – under the cloak of moonlight and a whole new world is opened up to Lily. However, in 1950s San Francisco, homophobia is not the only thing that Lily has to look out for – her father is under suspicion of treating a communist who visits his Chinese doctors’ surgery, and Lily’s relationship with her best friend is on the rocks. But when Lily starts slowly falling in love with another girl, it feels like the most right thing in the world.
This was my first foray into Malinda Lo’s works, though I recently purchased a second hand copy of Ash on Depop, and I’m so happy to say that I adored this novel! Though I absolutely adore the genre, I don’t tend to read a lot of historical fiction, particularly historical fiction set during the Red Scare. This is a part of history that, admittedly, I don’t know all that much about, especially since it wasn’t as big a phenomenon in Scotland, so it was really interesting to get an insight into this period in time, and it’s one that I’ll definitely be educating myself more on.
As for Lily as a character, I loved reading from her perspective. Her character growth throughout the novel was so heartening to see – from almost cowering in response to her best friend’s overpowering, headstrong nature to standing up for herself as the novel neared its close, as well as refusing to lie about her true self was both heart-breaking and so powerful to see! I thought that the inclusion of both Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as many aspects of Chinese culture, sprinkled throughout the book made the story even richer, and Malinda Lo’s author’s note at the end of the book, explaining her choices regarding italicisation, the use of traditional vs. simplified characters, and ‘Chinglish’ was such an interesting addition as I love seeing the thought process that goes into an author’s work (and my mouth was also watering at the food descriptions)! Kath was another wonderful character – I loved how her love for flying planes complimented Lily’s interest in space and they really felt perfect for each other. Something that was mentioned in our book club discussion was when Kath is referred to as a baby butch by older lesbians and the joy that that brings her, and that really just made my heart so happy! Alongside the dedication to femmes and butches and the start of the book, it made me so excited to see that so many young sapphics are going to have this beautiful, positive butch representation in their lives!
The lesbian bar scene and Tommy, the male impersonator, reminded me a lot of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters and Masquerade by Anne Shade, and it really solidified my love for this part of queer history in literature. The almost found family that Lily finds in the bar was so heartening to see, even though it was marred by the racist microaggressions that she faced – Lily’s Chinese ethnicity is something that is intrinsically woven into her experiences in the queer bar life, and it is a perspective that I feel was sorely needed in YA literature. As I am not an own voices reader for Asian representation, I highly recommend that you check out Hsinju’s review for the book – not only is it a wonderful, in depth review, but they also go more in depth into parts of the book that are completely unknown to me, including the space-y aspects!
Overall, this was such a wonderful novel that left me tearing up whenever I thought about it, hours after I’d put the book down! This is a book that is sure to stay with me for a long time and I can’t wait to read more by Malinda Lo in the future!