Lo, Malinda. Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Dutton Books. 2021. $18.99. 416p. HC. 9780525555254.
It is 1954 and Lily Hu is starting her final year of high school. McCarthyism is in full swing, targeting and deporting Chinese-Americans accused of having communist sympathies, and homosexuality still has three more decades to go until it stops being considered a mental disorder. Despite all this, Lily can’t focus on much beyond the new precipice of self-discovery she’s approaching.
It starts as a few clippings from magazines and newspapers: Katharine Hepburn in trousers, three female pilots sitting casually close to one another, and an ad to see the male impersonator Tommy Andrews perform at the Telegraph Club. She doesn’t know why she feels so compelled to look at these clippings, but in looking she hopes to understand. When a classmate, Kathleen Miller, accidentally sees the clipping of Tommy Andrews, she offers to take Lily to the Telegraph Club to see her in person. With equal measures dread and excitement, Lily steps into a forbidden world.
What follows is a brilliant imagining of what it might have been like to come of age in the 1950s as a Chinese-American and as a lesbian. Malinda Lo did an immense amount of research to ground this book in its setting and flesh out the type of story missing from our archives. The oppressive context of the era looms over Lily’s every decision. It is impossible not to feel the exquisite tension compelling Lily to explore, knowing as we do that she won’t be granted the conventionally happy ending we find in so many modern stories. Yet Lo refuses to sacrifice her heroine to any of the damaging tropes that posit suffering as an inevitability for queers of that era. From beginning to end, this novel is a triumph of possibility in queer storytelling.
Malinda Lo has been a proponent of diversity in books for years, so it’s no surprise that this book is a shining example of representation done well. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is immersive historical fiction that brings to life several diverse threads of the American experience that are often overlooked and oversimplified. The 1950s in particular is a decade that experiences so much whitewashing and heteronormativity in the popular imagination that it feels radical to read about a queer girl in San Francisco’s thriving Chinatown in 1954, all of the details firmly rooted in historical records. It is a gift fashioned from the whispers of our forebears. Fittingly, Lo dedicates the book to butches and femmes of the past, present, and future.
Highly recommended for adults and teens who like their historical fiction queer and accurate, readers looking for stories featuring queer people of color, anyone wanting insight into the Chinese-American experience in San Francisco from the 1930s to the fifties in particular, those who like stories with romance where there’s a lot more going on than just a relationship, and, of course, butches and femmes.
Review by Ashley Dunne