Review: 'Last Night at the Telegraph Club' is the Novel I Wish I Had in Middle School
The book balances historical research with a love story to which a young, queer audience can relate.
It’s been a while since I exited my young adult literature phase. Throughout seventh and eighth grade, I consumed YA novels as if my life depended on it — at least two a week at my peak. Since then, I’ve tried to reignite my excitement surrounding the genre that inspired me to fall in love with reading, but I haven’t been able to do so since middle school.
That changed this month when I picked up 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 that most YA books fail. For one, the beautiful and complex writing dares to compete with the prose of some of the best-selling novels published for adult readers. Where it really stands out, though, is in its balance of both 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 trope of the complicated first kiss. We watch a friendship — rooted in teenage angst — blossom into something more romantic. The simplistic third-person figural narrative allows us to see into Lily’s mind, which questions the experience of falling in love.
However, Lily’s placement in society and Lo’s insistence on realism makes the possibility for a happy ending something one could only hope for rather than expect. It was something I hoped for. I hoped that Lily and Kath would run off together, move into their own small one-bedroom in the city and spend all their nights at the Telegraph Club (the fictional lesbian bar that brings the girls together) with their new network of queer friends. Admittedly, I was upset when that didn’t happen. I didn’t end the novel with tears of joy stinging my eyes, as I tend to after reading other more-celebratory queer romances.
But I was still satisfied. Rather than flowery fiction, we see a snapshot of what life could have been like for a real-life Lily. Lily and Kath’s love story ends with hope, with a possibility for a future, if not a guarantee. It ends with Lily feeling “a queer giddiness overtaking her, as if her body might float up from the ground because she was so buoyant with this lightness, this love.”
The novel contextualizes this love for us. It provides readers the opportunity to learn about what this period may have been like for a marginalized group. The novel is based on copious amounts of research, both on queer life in the 50s and on life for Chinese Americans living in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the same era, a time plagued by a rampant fear of communism.
Lo includes much of this research at the end of the novel in the author’s notes.
“It has been difficult for me to find evidence of lesbians of color in this time period [...] Finding any history of queer Asian American women has been even more difficult,” she writes.
So, Lo created a novel that readers can look towards as a pseudo-historical document, a vignette of an erased community. She discusses the dangers of being both queer and Chinese at a time when homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder, when sex between members of the same sex was still illegal, when McCarthyism and the Red Scare were tied closely to anti-Asian sentiments and deportations.
Yet still, Lily is someone to which contemporary readers can relate. What made me happiest when reading this book was imagining its target audience. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Lily as a character and getting to learn more about queer history, but I came into the novel knowing I identify as queer. I can only imagine the impact this novel would have had on middle school me, and the impact it certainly has on young people today.
Lily’s narrative reads almost like a how-to book on putting words to queer feelings. The readers — particularly the young readers — of “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” can see their experiences projected onto the page. We see Lily’s first indications of her queer identity and her resulting confusion. We learn about the collection of secret photos of women that Lily keeps in her room. We see the excitement that Lily feels as she grows close to Kath, and her reactions to Kath’s flirting. Her feelings are described through metaphors, as feelings she doesn’t have words for, feelings likely understood by young readers coming to terms with their own sexuality.
One of the most striking facets of the book is the way in which Lily becomes able to verbalize her feelings. Just like one of the potential young readers of “Last Night at the Telegraph Club,” Lily finds a book that tells the story of two women in love. This book becomes her lens into self-realization. We see her thoughts on the page: “Are you like the girls in the book too? Because I think I am.”
To me, the true joy of the novel lies in the potential that Lily and Kath can be the “girls in the book” for someone else. Regardless of whether their story has a happy ending, their love for each other shines on the page. Their uncertainties turn to certainty, their thoughts gain 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.