“Last Night at the Telegraph Club”: Coming of age, aspirational role-models, and nostalgia

“Last Night at the Telegraph Club”:

Not only did Lo win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” was the first novel featuring an LGBT female lead to do so.

My relationship with the young adult (YA) book genre is complicated. My friends have been the audience to many a rant of mine about anything from pointless plotlines to original characters to problematic tropes; however, they’ve also been witness to my vehement defense of YA when I feel someone has unfairly criticized it. When it comes to reading reviews about YA novels, there seem to be a few groups: Those fully sharing their love for the genre, those attempting to validate it, and those who think the former are foolish (obviously other reactions exist, it’s a spectrum.) The relative divisiveness of YA is something I’ve come to find funny in the past couple months, mostly thanks to a report by The Publisher Weekly that shares the statistic that: 55% of people buying YA were 18 or older (and 78% of those shared that they were buying the book for themselves.) People can hate on YA all they want, but the market is thriving, and, more importantly, impactful, meaningful books are being published under the YA umbrella. Labeling Malinda Lo’s novel, “Last Night at the Telegraph Club”, as strictly YA does it a disservice- it is not only a story for everyone, but it’s the kind of book I wish I had found earlier. 

“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” is a love letter to falling in love and growing up without any cloying nostalgia. Set in San Francisco in the 1950s, the book centers on 17-year-old Lily Hu, who begins questioning her sexuality at the same time the Red Scare sweeps through America- putting her Chinatown community, and parents, at risk for deportation. When Lily discovers an ad for a performer at the lesbian bar, The Telegraph Club, she feels the pull to go, an internal question she has yet to answer. And when Lily realizes her classmate Kathleen Miller (Kath) has visited The Telegraph Club, her life changes completely.

In the Economist article: “The American Dream, RIP?”- an article about social mobility in America- its final paragraph opens with the line: “Many voters remember a time when hard work was reliably rewarded with economic security. This was not really true in the 1950s and 60s if you were black or female…” imploring the reader to reconsider their notions of what the 1950s were actually like. “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” pushes readers to the same questions, telling the readers to realize that the popularized version of the 50s is not the reality. The xenophobia and racism of the era are on full display, laying bare the challenges Lily’s family and friends face. Her father’s immigration papers are taken from him when he refuses to violate his patient’s privacy (the patient is a suspected communist) and Lily and her friends find their recreational activities- like picnics and pageants- under scrutiny. Compounding this is Lily’s worry that someone will find out about her visits to The Telegraph Club, along with her knowledge that a future with Kath will not be easy, and is not likely.

Lo brilliantly navigates  the gravity of the physical and social situation while also managing to imbue the story with a feeling of hope. This hopefulness is primarily developed through Lily’s relationship with side characters, especially Kath, but also her Aunt Judy, Tommy (a performer at The Telegraph Club), and Lena (Tommy’s girlfriend.) “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” avoids making romance Lily’s only support system: In addition to a relationship with Kath, we also see the inspiration Lily gets from her Aunt Judy (who has a career in STEM, the same subjects Lily is interested in), and the feeling of acceptance and admiration Lily has for the women at the club themselves. Lily begins to shape herself in the image of those she idolizes, but even more so is emboldened by these influences and steps into her own personality. She apologizes less for having opinions, commands respect from her peers, and stands up for herself.

This self-realization is most obvious in Lily’s changing dynamic with her childhood friend Shirley. Early on, it is shown that Shirley and Lily are not particularly close, and their friendship frequently teeters on a knife’s edge between niceties and insults. However, Shirley is easy to forgive, and Lily doesn’t have many other friends. The more Lily goes to The Telegraph Club, the less forgiving she is of Shirley’s behaviors. For a brief time, this works, and the readers get to see a truly healthy friendship emerge, but the false-high eventually ends.

Spoiler in this paragraph: Eventually, someone spots Lily leaving The Telegraph Club, Shirley hears about this and confronts Lily. Any hope for a continued and improved friendship ends as Shirley severs the ties between them. With the realization that her secret is going to come out no matter what, Lily decides to bite the bullet and tells her parents before they can hear it from anyone else. The heart-stopping scene ends the way you would expect, and it is quickly decided that Lily will be going to live with her Aunt Judy to finish out the school year- with the hope that the situation will blow over. Any attempts made by Lily to see Kath are also thwarted as Kath’s family has also found out. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to read, knowing that, even if the two of them are in love now, by the time they will be able to see one another again, they will have changed. First loves may not always last, but there is a particular sadness from the realization that the pair are not being allowed to end it on their own terms.

Minor spoilers: The end portion of the book made me a total emotional wreck as it has Lily and Kath reuniting after a year apart. The writing perfectly captures the experience of trying to reconnect to someone you once knew well while also being unsure of who they truly are. In many ways, it mirrors the end of Shirley and Lily’s friendship. There is still a spark between them, but whether or not they are still compatible with one another is undecided. Lo leaves the ending of the novel open-ended, allowing the reader to hope that something good will happen for Lily and Kath-whatever that looks like for them.

“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” is the kind of story that all audiences will continue to come back to. It is a resonant display of both the impacts of intolerance and a promise that better times will come. The experiences of the characters are beautifully rendered and pull on every possible heartstring. I’ll forever be sad that this book wasn’t released years ago, but I will forever be grateful that Lo crafted this narrative, and never cease to recommend it.

9.8/10 would sneak into The Telegraph Club

Further breakdown:

Writing Quality: 9/10                   Enjoyability: 9.5/10

Pace: 9/10                                       Visual elements: 9/10

Plot development: 9/10               Insightfulness: 10/10 

Characters: 10/10