While I was listening to Last Night at the Telegraph Club, I would occasionally pause the book just to think about how much I loved it. When was the last time I read a book like this? A book that had me crying on my way to work and begging for just a little more time at the end. A book that seamlessly weaves a romance and coming of age story with political and social upheaval and the complicated identities and loyalties of a Chinese-American lesbian girl in the McCarthy era? The answer is "never".
Lily is a senior in high school in 1954 San Francisco. She lives with her family in Chinatown and has been the Perfect Chinese Daughter her whole life. She's being pushed toward the heteronormative ideal of marriage and babies, but she's fascinated by space and the developments in rocket technology and wants to go to college to pursue that career. She becomes friends with the only other girl in her class interested in the same things, Kath. And then Kath, a baby butch, introduces her to the world of lesbian night clubs and a group of adult lesbians who live in ways Lily never imagined.
Meanwhile, Lily's family is dealing with xenophobia, in particular the US government's ability to persecute immigrants and citizens alike for suspected communist ties and racism. At one point, federal agents take her dentist father's naturalization papers in order to pressure him to rat out one of his patients. Of course this is terrifying, but her family later pulls it up as proof that Lily can't continue her lesbian associations because their position is tenuous enough already. How can Lily hold all of her identities in balance?
After reading about lesbian pulp fiction in Pulp, I was moved to read about the impact pulp novels had on Lily's awakening. In a time when it was socially and legally forbidden to be queer, people continued to make spaces, lives for themselves and each other. Lily goes through a lot to be herself, to love both herself and Kath openly. She faces homophobia from her friends and family and racism everywhere, including in the lesbian community. But once she finds herself, she refuses to pretend straightness for anyone. She isn't running down the street yelling about her queerness, but her love for Kath and unwillingness to be ashamed of her identities are worth celebrating. Lo doesn't pretend any of this is easy and doesn't tie up the story with a neat bow, but it's hopeful and I felt inspired by the resilience of our queer ancestors. I'm also inspired by centuries of Asian-Americans in my home country, but I assume Lily's story will resonate in a different way with Asian-American readers.
It's this fighting spirit, the small and large acts of resistance, that make the harder points in the book--and life--bearable. Sometimes, just living as a person society would rather didn't exist is itself an act of rebellion. Lily's story is complicated and beautiful and Malinda Lo gave us something really special with Last Night at the Telegraph Club.
Audio notes: I've said before that Emily Woo Zeller's performance elevates a book and this is no exception. I love her voice and the emotion she pulls from the text. The yearning, angst, complicated familial feelings... So good. I'm not sure they could have done a better job pairing a narrator with an author.
Content Warnings: homophobia, racism, xenophobia, government abuse, police raid, ethnic and homophobic slurs, queer teen kicked out of family/house
Spoiler: Lily is told at one point following a raid on the club in which Kath is arrested that there are no lesbians in her family. She runs away and is gone overnight. It's a really scary and she's not reunited with Kath until they've both graduated. Lily has to go live with other family to finish her school year, but is able to communicate with Kath through Kath's sister. They are reunited in an epilogue.
I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher for review.