Young Adult

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

I got the offer to review this book in an email, thanks to NetGalley and was excited that Malinda Lo had a new book coming out (well, it’s already out now).  I’ve liked all of her previous books, despite the fact that we see things very differently, politically.

A warning for my conservative readers: this is a lesbian coming-of-age story.  While it’s not particularly graphic or anything, there’s the usual stuff you’d expect of a young adult romance novel.

Anyway, this is the story of Lily Hu, a Chinese girl living in ’50s San Francisco.  She lives in Chinatown with her parents and two brothers.  She’s seventeen and in her senior year of high school, and after discovering male impersonator Tommy Andrews in a newspaper, she ends up seeing her schoolmate Kathleen Miller (‘Kath’ for short) in a whole new light.  She realizes she’s gay, and soon discovers that Kath is gay too, but before that, they begin making clandestine nighttime trips to a lesbian club called The Telegraph Club, where Tommy Andrews performs.

When I started this novel, I knew the author had done a lot of research into the time period and the gay culture of San Francisco, and it all came alive for me.  It was fascinating, since I’m from the Bay Area (further up north, in Solano county).  Life for Lily and her community isn’t easy, because of the hysteria surrounding communism and the fact that these were the early years of the Cold War.  The authorities were suspicious of Chinese immigrants due to the fact that in this timeframe, China fell to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.  Lily’s Shanghai-born father, Joseph, a doctor at the Chinese Hospital, has his papers confiscated once he refused to divulge the communist ties of one of his patients and Lily’s schoolmate Calvin.  This happens even though he’s a veteran of World War 2.

Yes, things were tough for non-white people back then, even though it was San Francisco and not, say, Montgomery, Alabama. The author does not shy away from using the terms people used back then, such as “oriental” and “negro”.  Lily and her friends also encounter casual racism, but it’s not as horrible as what blacks would encounter in the Deep South.  Still, I find myself deeply grateful that the US isn’t like that anymore.  Given how the media keeps whipping up hysteria about racism, I feel that teen readers of this book will not appreciate how much things have truly changed.

Being suspected of communist sympathies is bad enough – even her Chinese relatives and friends are completely disgusted by homosexuality.  Lily ends up feeling like an outcast because of these two things, but navigates them with strength and grace.

I actually liked the scenes at the Telegraph Club, as the club was a safe haven for the women who could not be themselves out in public, could not express their love for each other the way heterosexual couples could.  It also reminded me of another novel – Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which also features a male impersonator.

The novel is mostly told in the third-person perspective, from Lily’s perspective, but there’s also several chapters in between the different parts of the novel, all told from the perspectives of her father, mother and aunt Judy when they were younger.  It is through these chapters that we see how Lily’s parents got together, and we also see, through Judy’s eyes, Lily’s budding interest in aeronautics and sci-fi.  I loved that aspect about Lily – I love sci-fi too, and I also love astronomy.

There’s also a lot about Chinese culture, from the dress to the food to the history and language, and there’s some lines of dialogue in Chinese characters, but they’re translated in footnotes.  Some other terms are romanized, but translated in footnotes.

As noted, the novel is separated into several parts, and in between those parts are the chapters told from her parents and aunt’s point of view, and a timeline of important historical events from that time period.  I was afraid the author would be sympathetic to communism and such, but it isn’t that big a part of the novel.  Plenty of Lily’s family and friends are definitely not fond of communism, and some are resentful of being suspected of communist sympathies or ties due to their nationality and/or ethnicity, which is understandable.

The romance between Lily and Kath is a slow one, and the true romance happens much later in the novel.  I kind of wish it had happened sooner, as the novel felt really long, but then we probably wouldn’t have those alternate chapters, which I also found fascinating.

Things go fine at the Telegraph Club until the police raid the place and arrest the owner and Tommy Andrews.  Even though homosexuals were allowed to legally gather at the time, the club owner and patrons were suspected of luring underage teenagers to the club, where they supposedly plied them with alcohol and drugs.  After that happens, Lily eventually comes out to her parents, and at the risk of offering spoilers, let’s just say it does not go well.

The end is kind of sad and bittersweet, although I’ll spoil it a little bit by saying that Lily and Kath do have a happy ending.  It’s kind of anti-climactic, but they do have a happy ending.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this one, but I ended up enjoying it, especially getting a view into Chinese culture, which, like Japanese and Korean culture, fascinates me.

The very end of the book contains a lengthy author’s note adding context to the story by discussing the history of the era and the research she did.  It’s also pretty fascinating, and the author even disclosed that certain people in her family were inspiration for elements of the story.

It’s pretty good, not only for learning about the Chinese immigrant community of the ’50s but also for the challenges lesbians faced at that time.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with this ARC for review.

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