Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a story about first love. And also about growing up queer in 1950's America. And about the Chinese- American experience. These three subjects are intertwined in a seamless narrative that, honestly, affected me a lot and made me so much more aware of experiences outside of my own. Lily is a Chinese- American girl growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown, and when she begins to suspect that she has feelings for Kathleen, a classmate, things get interesting.
Malinda Lo has a great author's note at the end where she goes into detail about her inspiration for the book, and that includes her own experiences as well as research she's done relative to the Chinese- American experience- and also the lifestyle challenges faced by homosexuals in American society. I learned a lot and yet it also struck me how familiar some of the same issues are- I mean, I grew up hearing about how the Soviet Union was the boogeyman and how Communism was a threat, and so it was interesting to see how those things were an issue in the 50's as well (and I knew those things were issues, but this was maybe the first book I've read that was fiction and explored it from a YA POV).
It's amazing to me how in 2021 so little has changed! I keep hearing about Communism is a threat in modern America and it just strikes me how so little has changed in fifty years. We're still fighting over gay rights, as well. At any rate Lily and Kath begin to explore their sexuality, and I think for a lot of LGBTQIA+ readers it may be a touching, relatable way that they explore their feelings. And having to hide those feelings from a judgmental society. I feel like Lo really lays it all out here, not pulling any punches in some respects, and yay for that. People need to understand others. Lily and Kath decide to go to the Telegraph Club, which is a big no-no for proper young ladies, where they see a crossdressing performance and make the acquaintance of several other lesbians.
The story proceeds from there with an examination of gender roles, the Red Scare of the 50's, Lily's struggle with her very conservative Chinese- American family, the burden of having to hide who she is from her friends and society. I thought this was really well done. Things are a bit open ended- life is messy and there are no easy answers- and I thought this was an absolutely fabulous read.