Review: ‘Last Night at the Telegraph Club’ is the novel I wish I had in college
The book balances historical research with a love story that young, queer audiences can relate to.
It’s been a while since I got out of my young adult literature phase. Throughout seventh and eighth grade, I consumed YA novels like my life depended on it — at least two a week at my peak. I’ve since tried to rekindle my enthusiasm around the genre that inspired me to fall in love with reading, but haven’t been able to since college.
That changed this month when I read Malinda Lo’s novel “Last Night at the Telegraph Club,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2021. Set in San Francisco in the 1950s, the novel tells the story of 17-year-old Lily Hu, a Chinese-American who begins to question her sexuality after developing a relationship with Kath, a white girl in her class.
The novel succeeds in many places where I feel like most YA books fail. On the one hand, the beautiful and complex writing dares to rival the prose of some of the best-selling novels published for adult readers. Where it really stands out, however, is in its balance of historical realism and hope, a balance we so rarely see in queer stories.
In many ways, Lily’s story evokes the joys of YA romance novels. We see the complicated first kiss trope. We watch a friendship – rooted in teenage angst – blossom into something more romantic. The simplistic third-person figurative narrative allows us to see into the mind of Lily, who challenges the experience of falling in love.
However, Lily’s placement in society and Lo’s insistence on realism make the possibility of a happy ending something one can only hope for rather than expect. It was something I was hoping for. I hoped Lily and Kath would run away together, move into their own little bedroom in town, and spend all their nights at the Telegraph Club (the fictional lesbian bar that brings the girls together) with their new network of gay friends. Admittedly, I was upset when that didn’t happen. I didn’t end the novel with tears of joy that sting my eyes, as I tend to do after reading other more celebratory queer novels.
But I was still satisfied. Rather than flowery fiction, we see a snapshot of what a real Lily’s life could have been like. Lily and Kath’s love story ends with hope, with a possibility for the future, if not a guarantee. It ends with Lily feeling “a strange dizziness overwhelming her, as if her body could float off the ground because she was so buoyant with this lightness, this love.”
The novel contextualizes this love for us. It offers readers the opportunity to discover what this period may have been like for a marginalized group. The novel is based on extensive research, both on queer life in the 1950s and on the lives of Chinese Americans living in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the same era, a time plagued by fear rampant of communism.
Lo includes much of this research at the end of the novel in the author’s notes.
“It was difficult for me to find evidence of lesbians of color at that time […] Finding a story of queer Asian American women was even harder,” she wrote.
So Lo has created a novel that readers can view as a pseudo-historical document, a vignette of an erased community. She discusses the dangers of being both gay and Chinese at a time when homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder, when same-sex sexual relations were still illegal, when McCarthyism and Red Scare were closely related to anti-Asian sentiments and deportations. .
Yet Lily is still someone contemporary readers can relate to. What made me happiest reading this book was imagining its target audience. I really enjoyed getting to know Lily as a character and learning more about queer history, but I went into the novel knowing that I identified as queer. I can only imagine the impact this novel would have had on me in college, and the impact it certainly has on young people today.
Lily’s story reads almost like a how-to book on how to put strange feelings into words. Readers – especially young readers – of “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” can see their experiences projected onto the page. We see Lily’s first hints of her queer identity and the resulting confusion. We discover the collection of secret photos of women that Lily keeps in her bedroom. We see the excitement Lily feels as she grows closer to Kath and her reactions to Kath’s flirting. Her feelings are portrayed through metaphors, as feelings for which she has no words, feelings likely understood by young readers coming to terms with their own sexuality.
One of the most striking facets of the book is how Lily becomes able to verbalize her feelings. Just like one of the young potential readers of “Last Night at the Telegraph Club”, Lily finds a book that tells the story of two women in love. This book becomes his goal in self-realization. We see his thoughts on the page: “Are you also like the girls in the book? Because I think I am.
For me, the real joy of the novel is in the potential that Lily and Kath could be someone else’s “book girls.” It doesn’t matter if their story has a happy ending, their love for each other shines on the page. Their uncertainties turn into certainties, their thoughts take on meaning, and another young girl has the potential for her own discovery.
“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” marks the start of something beautiful in the world of YA fiction.