Overall rating: 4.5/5
Genre: Historical fiction, romance, LGBTQ+
Read if you loved: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Content warnings: Racism, homophobia, miscarriage (short description)
Happy Sunday, everyone! By the time I post this, I will be done with 1 week of finals and 2/4 classes for this semester and I really can’t wait. I love school, but I miss work and not being broke so I’m really looking forward to my internship starting in a few weeks. As anticipated, my reading has slowed down a little as I
cry myself to sleep at night cram all the cell biology I can but I finally finished my second book of May and wow, it was a good one.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows seventeen-year old Lily Hu as she falls into a journey of self-discovery, not only navigating her identity as a Chinese-American in the midst of rising anti-Chinese sentiments, but also coming to terms with her sexuality. Everything that she has questioned becomes clear when she meets Kathleen Miller and the two begin visiting a lesbian bar, introducing Lily to a world that she never believed could exist. I couldn’t possibly put this better than Malinda Lo does in her acknowledgements when she says, “Lily’s story is my attempt to draw some of this history from the margins…learning how to live as both Chinese American and lesbian, in spaces that often did not allow both to coexist.” This is historical fiction at its finest. Lo effortlessly weaves rich history – from 1950s San Francisco queer culture to Red-Scare paranoia – within a beautiful coming-of-age narrative that captures the desperate need and the lengths we traverse to find our place in an unaccepting world.
There is just something about reading a book set in a city you have lived in that makes it all the more magical. While set in the 1950s, I could still picture myself walking right next to Lily on each and every page. I visited North Beach, walked up to Coit Tower, smelled the delicious scents emanating from food stalls in Chinatown, and dreamt of the day I can visit the city once we’re out of this pandemic *gazes into the near-but-so-far future*. This is the most vividly I have pictured myself in a book in a while, but as much as that may be due to my familiarity with the city, it is also a testament to Lo’s vivid and evocative writing.
Then there’s the sheer amount of research that clearly went into this book, but the restraint Lo shows in integrating that information stops it from becoming overwhelming in the way that other historical fiction novels do. The scope of research here doesn’t just stop at lesbian culture or racist policies, but extends to every inch of Lily’s character development, including her ambitions to work at JPL, which made her come alive on the page in a way that few other main characters do. Lo does include little timelines of events between chapters which not only helped reset me as a reader, but also introduced the broad context of the time in a very accessible way before integrating it into the story in subsequent pages. I walked away feeling so much more knowledgeable, without feeling like I read a history book.
But the star of Last Night at the Telegraph Club is undoubtedly Lily’s emotional journey. The way Lo conjures her cognitive dissonance, fueled by her experiences at the Telegraph Club contrasted with those at home in Chinatown, as well as the subsequent development of her self-assurance is nothing short of exemplary. There were many times when I was preparing myself for the story to take a dark turn, to watch Lily internalize the homophobia that is so rampant around her. But that doesn’t happen. The book does not shy away from the hardships of her journey – there were many moments in which my heart broke from the sheer cruelty and difficulty of certain scenes, but at no point does she lose that light and strength. I couldn’t possibly relate to everything she goes through, but Lo makes sure I get damn close. The entire novel is crafted with so much care, and that bounces off the pages.
The half star docked here is due to a few loose ends in the plot. There are a few plot points that are introduced earlier on in the story that quickly fizzle out and take a back-seat to the romance, which left the story feeling incomplete. There are also certain chapters where we flash back to other family members and specific events in their lives that felt a bit random to me. Not a huge deal because ultimately, I connected deeply with the book, and when that happens, these more technical issues don’t matter as much.
Everyone needs to read this book! If historical fiction scares you, this is a good place to start because I think it’s so well done and circumvents the typical pitfalls of the genre. And I promise you it’s not boring. It’s one to savor over a period of time, and definitely prepare your tissues, but this is one book that needs so much more attention than it seemingly has right now. What is the best historical fiction novel you have read?