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

Here is my spoiler-free review of an anticipated sapphic 2021 release, Last Night at the Telegraph Club!



➸ YA historical fiction

➸  published in 2021

➸  content warnings: homophobia, racism, misogyny, miscarriage






☆ PLOT: 3




“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.

“It wasn’t like chocolate, Lily thought. It was like finding water after a drought. She couldn’t drink enough, and her thirst made her ashamed, and the shame made her angry.”

Lily’s exploration and discovery of her sexuality was such a powerful experience to follow, which resonated with me and I’m sure many others like me. Lily’s shame and confusion at realising who she is, a common experience for queer people, is amplified by the restrictions of the time, her family’s views and their shaky status with the government. Her journey to acceptance isn’t easy, and the ending isn’t unrealistic for the time, but there was something so heart-warming about reading Lily’s story and her fierce determination to be herself.

“They looked at each other, Kath with her shy half smile and Lily with her earnestness, and there was such an unexpected feeling of openness between them—a flying kind of feeling, as if they had lifted off from the ground right then and there. But then Kath flushed and looked away, and Lily was flooded with self-consciousness.”

This quote perfectly shows the romance. We didn’t get to see much of Katherine’s character, but their relationship felt so natural and developed slowly but surely. I can guarantee that there will be times when you want to shout at the characters to finally get together, but who doesn’t love a sapphic slow-burn? I also liked that although there was romance, it didn’t eclipse other aspects of the story, such as Lily’s growth and the historical backdrop. 

However, there was so much packed into this book that sometimes it suffered from not exploring one aspect in the depth that it could have. Some characters and sub plots didn’t feel fully resolved by the end and left me wanting more, like Lily’s friendship with Shirley. The impact of Communism and events in China is also present throughout the book, but the threat seemed distant and the mini plot line didn’t end up going anywhere. The glimpses we did see though were fascinating, and the treatment of Chinese Americans and lesbian culture were the strongest themes. This story gave a fresh insight into Asian Americans during and after World War II that I hadn’t considered much before, with links to McCarthyism and the Chinese Civil War. There were a few chapters from Lily’s mum and aunt’s perspective which enriched the story with a deeper sense of the history. The lesbian community and nightlife in the 1950s was another hidden part of history that I knew nothing about. It was so interesting to explore queer history in a new light, and validating to just know that queer people have always existed in history.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a compelling queer story, packed with a tender romance, lots of drama and a vivid historical setting!

Thanks for reading my review! Have you read or are you interested in reading Last Night at the Telegraph Club?


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