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Book Review: Last Night at The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Perhaps one day she’d get used to the way it made her feel: dislocated and dazed, never quite certain if the other half of her would stay offstage as directed. But tonight she felt as if she were constantly on the edge of saying or doing something wrong, and the effort of keeping that unwelcome half silent was making her sick.

Last night at the telegraph clubI am trying to pin down why I didn’t love Malinda Lo’s YA novel, Last Night at The Telegraph Club.

I loved so many things about it! It tells the story of Lily Hu, an Asian-American girl in 1950s San Francisco who is slowly realizing she is a lesbian. She doesn’t, as the story starts, even really have a concept of what that is, or even how it might be expressed through her, but as she has experiences—seeing an advertisement for a cross-dressing singer who performs at a bar, bumping into a queer pulp novel in a drugstore display—she begins to question, explore, and act. With the aid of her new friend Kath, she sneaks away at night sometimes, to see Tommy Andrews sing. This is where is is exposed to the underground world of lesbians that is hiding in plain sight in San Francisco. There is also tension at home, as her father is under investigation for perhaps being a communist.

This book had so many things that resonated with me. Lily’s discovery of who she is coincides with her discovery of allies. The romance that develops is sweet and authentic. The way her relationships change with her other friends is, too. It brings to life how terrifying it was to be gay, pre Stonewall. (It is really hard to even imagine, honestly, although some current politicians seem bent on pushing us back that way.) San Francisco (a city I’ve admired since I visited when I was 12 or 13 and loved since I ran the marathon there) comes to life, as does the Asian-American culture of the time.

Taken in parts, there is everything to love.

But I can’t say I loved it. 

To be fair, it might just be because of the place I was in all winter—down in it and not even trying to fight it. And it also could be that it just doesn’t matter...I just don’t love romance novels, even when they are well-written like this one is. 

Part of it, though, is the ending. I never need a happy ending, or even one that isn’t ambiguous. But so many stories are left hanging that the ending felt abrupt. The more I think about it, the more it is also that I didn’t love it because it didn’t really all come together and I had many unanswered questions.

But! I am glad I read this. Lily is one of my favorite YA characters. She makes mistakes but she isn’t flippant or ditzy about it. She is brave and honest. And she reminded me that we must keep fighting for human rights, even in our contemporary society, because life in the years before gay rights and civil rights and the feminist movement was rough. No one should have to live with such fear and loneliness. 

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