#IMWAYR: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Update (10/5/2021): So, I did write a pretty-solid review of this book below, in my opinion, but honestly, nothing might be more convincing about how good this book is than the fact that it is a 2021 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature (proof here!)!!! I'm seriously so excited—it's been a month on the dot since I posted this review, and I'm still very much a giant fan of this spectacu-fabulous story (yes, I made up a word there).
Update (11/25/2021): And now Last Night at the Telegraph Club is officially the WINNER of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature! I must say, it is so vindicating when the book you love literally wins one of the biggest awards in existence—it feels like all of my tastes have been validated! Also, yes, I'm updating this post on Thanksgiving—I suppose you could say I'm thankful that this book won an award!
Happy Labor Day! I am so, SO excited to be here today to talk about a truly spellbinding and memorable YA novel: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo.
So obviously, this is a YA novel and contains mature content. But also, I do need to give a CONTENT WARNING for outdated racial terms (this book is historical fiction, which is why they are used), as well as some pretty intense homophobia (it's quite hard to stomach). Also, despite the LGBTQ+ elements, most of the book is pretty male-or-female about things—it is the 1950s, after all, and even the gay community wasn't the LGBTQ+ community yet. But I hope these warnings won't stop you from reading on!
So, it's possible that I found out about this book in FEBRUARY. Let me explain what happened. In February, Ari at Books. Libraries. Also Cats recommended this novel, and I thought it sounded good, but maybe a little too long for me to commit to. But I decided to buy a copy of it anyway. Then, in May, Crystal Brunelle at Reading Through Life recommended it, and I thought, "Hmm...That's still on my bookshelf." And even since then, Beth at Library Chicken has been reading this book as well. (By the way, do make sure to stop by all those blogs—Ari's blog is SO CUTE, Crystal Brunelle is always recommending awesome diverse books, and Beth makes me laugh in practically every post.) Then this funny thing happened called "me joining a reading challenge." The totally-fabulous Sue Jackson at Book by Book, who has awesome recommendations of books for all ages in addition to great writing about chronic illness, was running a challenge, the Big Book Summer Challenge, where all you had to do is read a book over 400 pages! So I signed up and read one Big Book, On a Sunbeam, but since that was a graphic novel, I felt I needed to read one big novel in order to fulfill the spirit of the challenge. And there was Last Night at the Telegraph Club, waiting to be read since February. So I started this book several weeks ago. And read a little, then stopped. And read a little, then stopped. And read a little, then stopped. And then I got to the beginning of this week and realized, "So, there's literally one week left before the Big Book Summer Challenge ENDS, and I have 250 pages left in a 400-page book I need to finish for it." So I read. And read. And read. And I DID IT—I finished Last Night at the Telegraph Club, and I fulfilled my goal for the Big Book Summer Challenge literally on the last day of the challenge (Labor Day). Huzzah! And now, you're in luck, because I have officially finished reading one of the most gorgeous novels I've ever read in my life. Let me tell you about it.
The year? 1954. The place? San Francisco. The character? Lily Hu, the 17-year-old American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants (her mother is a nurse, and her father is a respected doctor). Lily lives in Chinatown with her parents and two younger brothers, and although she dreams of going to space one day or at least getting a job like her Aunt Judy (who works as a computer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL), she generally fits into the image her family is trying to portray, which in a time as full of prejudice (and McCarthyism) as the 1950s, is mostly the image of a quintessential American family. But it's not just being Chinese-American that keeps Lily from fitting into that image. It's 12th grade, and Lily is noticing things about herself, and she also keeps running into another girl at school, Kathleen Miller (or Kath), and having admitted nothing, the two of them find themselves sneaking out one night to go to the Telegraph Club, a club frequented by lesbian women where the headline performance is a male impersonator. And as Lily is thinking more about whether two girls can fall in love, and as she finds herself noticing Kath more and more...well, read the book and see what happens. But know this. It's the 1950s. Lesbian women aren't safe. And Chinese-Americans aren't either, including Lily's own father, who fears possible deportation after he refuses to throw a supposed Communist under the bus. In such an unjust time, Lily simply won't be able to have everything she wants—everything she genuinely deserves. But she'll get something—she just has to decide what that something is, and how far she is willing to go to take it.
This. Book. Is. AMAZING!!! Oh my gosh, I have so many thoughts, and this review is practically picked fresh from the vine, as I'm writing it on Sunday night after finishing the book Sunday morning, so you can imagine me typing frantically as everything I want to say is trying to rush out all at once (just like that sentence). I need to start with this book's "vibe," and to do that, we need to talk about history. And we need to talk about how Malinda Lo, the author of this book, is literally one of the smartest people I've ever seen. I don't read much historical fiction. When I read fiction, the setting is usually completely fabricated, just like the characters. And I had this idea of historical fiction as being either terribly dull, filled with all kinds of irrelevant details that could make a person keel over, or as not being that tied down to history in the first place. Malinda Lo ensures that Last Night at the Telegraph Club is neither. The amount of history that Lo researched for this book, and tucked into every sentence, every page, every scene, and every chapter of this book is absolutely mind-boggling. Lo explains in the author's note basically how much of the story is actually based on the real world, and it's crazy how many details she's packed in—of attitudes toward Chinese-Americans (with McCarthyism, and the switch from China the ally during WWII to China the enemy during the Cold War), of LGBTQ+ history (I can't give too much away, but let's just say there were interviews involved), of the time before the Space Race and the exciting possibility of space travel on the horizon, and even of just the actual setting of San Francisco during the 1950s (tourist destinations, realistic street names, and so much more). It's crazy. I cannot fathom how Lo wrote this book in only 3 years, but she did, and I can tell she is a person I am honored to have read the words of.
Now, all of that ties into the writing style. And this is also proof that Malinda Lo is one of the most talented authors I've ever seen. There are so many scenes, and every single scene has a purpose. There are so many meaningless details that then reveal their meaning many pages later—talk about foreshadowing. There are brilliant parenthetical statements in a few chapters that simulate memories jumping back into the characters' heads—memories they couldn't keep out, even if they wanted to. Everything in the story is logical—trying to pick this book apart would be a waste of your time. And everything is gorgeously written. I often create my own vivid mental image of a story without reading the author's description (many books don't have great description anyway), so I find that reading a bunch of dense description pulls me out of the story, instead of immersing me into it. But I didn't feel that way with Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Lo uses plenty of description, down to the furniture in an apartment, or the Shanghainese dishes Lily's family prepares for New Year's, or THIS AMAZING QUOTE FROM PAGE 160:
The traffic was a moving river of red and white and yellow lights reflected in miniature in Kath's eyes.
There's not so many quotes like that one that you feel like the book is pretentious, but there are enough that you are completely blown away. I felt that, even if I had to skim the description from time to time (and there's a lot of it, so I had to sometimes), I still pulled out the details and made a mental picture for myself like the one in the story—one way more vivid than anything I could have come up with myself as a placeholder, I might add. And every detail is meaningful too—if Lo is going to depict all the furniture in an apartment, you can bet she'll use it to give the room that sense of cosmopolitan excitement during a party—and then twist it around and show the chipped paint and torn fabric once the regular light of day rolls in. (There's an actual example I'm thinking of here, FYI.) It's spellbinding—I had trouble getting engrossed in this book at first, but by the second half, and especially by the last 100 pages, I was plowing through this incredible, fully-realized world like nobody's business.
But there's more things that are incredible about Last Night at the Telegraph Club than just all that. Let's talk about the Telegraph Club for a minute. The Telegraph Club is a lot of things. It's a place where tourists stop by during the day and don't notice the man singing before them isn't a man. It's a place of glamour, and wine, and the piano by the wall, and sneaking out during the night—it's illicit enough to be exciting, but not so dangerous that you don't keep coming back. (And to be clear, I don't mean it's illicit because of the LGBTQ+ elements—but Kath probably shouldn't have gotten Lily a fake ID to sneak in there, it bears noting.) The Telegraph Club is a place where your distant romantic fantasies walk right up to you, and suddenly you panic, because you realize the things you think of in your head are not things you feel comfortable with in real life. (Again, that's based on a real example from the book.) And it's a place where lesbian culture, and the ideas of being butch or femme, pervade every last inch of space—it's strange to see a culture that's so rigid where most LGBTQ+ representation in YA books is built on freedom of identity, but there's also something valuable in capturing the real-life culture that many books never talk about, a culture that can be constraining but still hovers over LGBTQ+ individuals today. And, most importantly for our purposes, the Telegraph Club is a place that Lily and Kath visit. And visit again. And visit again. And let's talk about Lily for a moment—and romance too. I used to think I hated YA romance, but actually, I just hate YA romance when it's meaningless and clichéd and obnoxious, which, unfortunately, is all the time. (A super-smart friend of mine pointed out that the YA world is still pretty much in its infancy—name a popular YA novel before The Hunger Games—so hopefully all the love triangles and pining will disappear soon enough.) Last Night at the Telegraph Club's romance is slow, but it's not infuriating. It's gradual. It requires trust, and getting to know one another, and building up to things, and being afraid, and asking the other person if they are comfortable. And it's beautiful. And there's no love triangles or clichés in sight. I feel like Last Night at the Telegraph Club hits on some truly incredible things about love, and it convinced me, as it will convince you, that love isn't some frivolous thing that teenagers dabble in—it's a force beyond all others, and it can change a person in marvelous, marvelous ways.
Too vague for you? That's fine—let's tackle something else, then (although it might be vague too). Last Night at the Telegraph Club tackles character relationships in ways that are so stunning, and so memorable. Lily has a complex relationship with her family, and although it stays in the background of most chapters, you still get a fascinating sense of how multifaceted people are, and of how Lily's own parents could be way more constrictive or sexist, but she still finds kinship more in her Aunt Judy (who is quite complex as well). I also thought it was absolutely genius to start every "part" of the book off with a flashback chapter from the perspective of one of Lily's family members—it pulls history into the story in even more clever ways, and it gives you a completely new angle from which to view all of the characters. And there's also Lily's best friend, Shirley—and the parts with Shirley are brilliant. I think we've all known a Shirley—nice enough, and familiar enough, that it feels safe to be around her, but always expecting a little too much of you, always holding you a little too tightly, always hiding a sharper edge behind her perfect-American-girl facade. Lily's relationship with Shirley is brilliantly written at every turn, and the way Shirley and her plotlines exemplify the broader world's assimilationist, model-minority views toward Chinese-Americans are fascinating and infuriating to watch. And while I'm on that topic—it would never have occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense that, at the Telegraph Club, Lily would have been the only Asian-American in the room. (I mean, this book is set pre-Civil Rights Act—and yes, it's California, but still, things aren't terribly integrated.) And you really get a sense of just how much microaggressions must make people want to punch the aggressor in the face after seeing someone at the club ask Lily for the ten millionth time where she's from, and if she speaks English.
And then there's the book's ending. And I will say, I read the ending today. And when you read a book as immersive as Last Night at the Telegraph Club, and you start to feel like you are living the life of the protagonist—well, when bad things happen, they feel like they are happening to you. I was off-kilter all day after reading some of the stuff that Lily went through. Because let's be real—the 1950s are not safe for Lily. Not at all. And if you think that Malinda Lo, who never forgets a detail, who captures every element of the human experience, is just going to let Lily sneak by unharmed, well...you'll see if you're right or wrong, but I suspect you can guess. (It clicked why this book is narrated in first-person—I would not want to read about what Lily went through from her own mind.) But here's the thing. First of all, the ending is gorgeous. Unquestionably so. It just keeps capturing even more truths about the world in so many incredible ways. And it's also an ending that doesn't leave you without reward. Lily has to make a choice at the end of this book—is she going to let everyone else simply erase what she's been through, and move on like nothing's changed? You'll have to find out what Lily decides yourself, but I will leave you with this: the countless beautiful pages you read before this won't simply be erased at the end. I promise.
Please, for the love of books—read Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Will it take a minute to grab you? Maybe. Will you spend way too long on it and end up finishing your reading challenge on the very last day it's open? Perhaps. But it will be worth it. Last Night at the Telegraph Club captures human truths in a way that the very best books do. It has characters that are so real, you'll feel like you know them—especially Lily, who I know has the strength, the tenacity, the joy to keep going past whatever obstacles she comes across. It has descriptions that will immerse you in a way you've probably never been immersed before. It is virtually perfect, and it is joyous, and it is excruciating, and it straddles the line between reality and fiction—after all, everything fictional is based on something real, and sometimes, our mundane real world shows such beauty in its corners that we think it has to be fiction. I am so grateful that, with the help of the Big Book Summer Challenge, I pulled this big book off my shelf and read it cover-to-cover—and I encourage you to get a copy as well, and embark on a journey of romance, and history, and meaning, that you'll never forget.
My rating is: Stunning!