Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo

Finally got around to reading Last Night at the Telegraph Club, after months of wanting to! 1950s historical novels aren’t my main interest, but I do like queer romances, especially historical ones (though I veer closer to the 1800s) so I was intrigued. It’s kinda hard to get around here, but the library is well-stocked so I took advantage!

The Synopsis

A 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.

The Review

tw: historically accurate homophobia, racism

I’ve recently stopped giving star ratings, just because it feels a bit artificial, but this one would be a definite 5/5 for me. I absolutely enjoyed every page of it. I’d read Malinda Lo’s Ash, a Cinderella retelling, a few years back and enjoyed it a lot too, but you can clearly see the growth in the writing style since then, and a lot of research went into making this book historically accurate as well – and it shows! It’s like a window into another time.

I’ve never been to the US, and my knowledge of San Francisco comes from movies and reading October Daye, so I’m not entirely the best person to judge but it made me feel like I was truly there.

We’re talking about queer teenagers in the 50s so obviously there’s a lot of homophobia, and that was hard to read about at times, but I always felt the characters were true to themselves, and Lily in particular was absolutely relatable in the ways she came to understand who she was, in her shyness around other queer women, her being torn between her family and who she really is… The fact that she had to deal with white queer women around her’s comments about her race made it very clear that she was stuck between two world neither of which truly accepted her, and seeing her navigating that and coming out a proud young woman was really cathartic. Even as a white queer woman myself, Lily’s story spoke to my younger self, without shying away from hard truths about racism which still feel very relevant today.

The last third of the book gets to a crescendo and I simply could not stop reading, I finished it at about 3am because I had to know what happened to them. And I don’t say this often for romances because they’re pretty self contained, but I want a sequel! I’d love to see Lily and Kathleen navigating the 60s and 70s and what happens to them as they grow older (together or apart), that’s how much Malinda Lo made me care about these characters!

As a final note, I also appreciated the research notes at the back of the book, with resources and books to look into it yourself if you want to know more about this part of history. Because it did make me want to read more on that.

Barnes & Noble | Bookshop UK (affiliate link) | Portal Bookshop | Kenny’s

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