Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club was the 1950s sapphic coming of age story I didn’t know I needed, and was such an engrossing read for me. In the prologue we meet Lily, who’s 13 and with her family at a 4th of July celebration/Miss Chinatown pageant in San Francisco; Lily feels “as if she shouldn’t be caught looking at those girls in their swimsuits,” though she can’t articulate why. The narrative then jumps forward four years to a scene of Lily and her friend Shirley: Shirley is showing Lily an ad for her family’s restaurant in the newspaper, but what catches Lily’s eye is a different ad entirely, for “TOMMY ANDREWS, MALE IMPERSONATOR,” who does shows at a place called the Telegraph Club. Later, at school, Lily is mortified when that ad, which she’d torn out of the paper, falls out of her bookbag in the bathroom. But when another girl, Kath, picks it up, what she says isn’t what Lily expects: she says she’s been to the Telegraph Club, and has seen Tommy Andrews perform there. And so Lily and Kath, who have been in classes together but have never really been friends, start walking home together and talking. They become friends, then more than friends, and their relationship is definitely one of my favorite things about the book, though there is also lots of other good stuff. Lily is Chinese American, and her family is concerned (with good reason) about the Red Scare and the effects it might have on them; we also see the casual racism of various white people Lily interacts with and how that affects her. And we see Lily figuring out her sexuality, and dealing with how to come out or not to her family, and dealing with gender expectations too (her aunt works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so there is some familial acceptance of women in science, but at the same time, when Lily asked for a chemistry set for Christmas when she was a kid, her mom’s reply was “Don’t you want a doll instead?”). There are also flashback scenes that give more background about Lily’s family and their stories, and about their different experiences as Chinese Americans of a previous generation.

I love the San Francisco setting of this novel and the way the city feels like such a perfect backdrop to the story. I like the way Lo uses the city as a way to talk about Lily’s growing awareness of possibilities beyond the world she’s always known, like this, from right after Lily sees the Tommy Andrews ad in the paper: “she stood at the window over the sink, gazing at the city lights, each a glowing ember marking someone else’s life: bedroom and living room windows, headlights crawling up the steep streets.” Or this: “She’d always thought there was something magical about the city, with its steep stairways and sudden glimpses of the bay between tall, narrow buildings. It felt expansive and full of promise, each half-hidden opening a reminder that the city she had been born in still held mysteries to discover.” I love that Kath and Lily go to a gelato and sorbetto place in North Beach at one point, and then have ginger ice cream in Chinatown; I love that Lily’s aunt takes her to Musée Mécanique; I love that Lily and Shirley go to Sutro’s and Ocean Beach.






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