There’s a lot to say about Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club. It won 2021’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; it was awarded the 2022 Stonewall Book Award. But none of those awards tells you why this work is so excellent: it merges a compelling coming-of-age story and learning to own one’s identity, while also acknowledging the historical events of the time. Lo has done the unusual; she has woven a deft, sweet (not saccharine) story that feels both familiar and new.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club largely follows Lily Hu, a sixteen-year-old student who lives in San Francisco Chinatown in the early 1950s. While she is trying to navigate her shifting relationship with her long-time bestie, who is a boy-crazy, popular girl entering the Miss Chinatown pageant, Lily is also explores a new friendship with a white girl who shares more of her scientific and personal interests. Lily also displays teenage moxy by going out to a club with her new friend that has a scandalous, but intriguing headliner: a woman dressing up as a man in a cabaret act.
While today it’s rare to think that women scientists, being gay, having friends of a different race, or going to see a drag show is provocative, Lo does a great job showing that all were taboo and complicated in the 1950s, without being heavy-handed. We root for Lily as she transgresses the expectations of society to become more of her true self. While the book primarily focuses on Lily’s journey of self-discovery, there are also short, tangential vignettes that focus on Lily’s mother, touching upon the McCarthyism and the perceived threat of Chinese communism, and her aunt, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While these asides are rarely as compelling as Lily’s story, they help give important perspective.
There are a lot of things that ring true in Lily’s world: the importance of family, but also wanting to have your own identity outside of them; the difficulty of growing up and learning who you are, rather than trying to be who you “should” be; and finding community, while still feeling like an outsider. While Last Night at the Telegraph Club is technically considered a young adult book, anyone who has considered an identity outside the expectations of society or their family will have a lot to appreciate here. Also, for a title that incorporates a lot of heavy subjects, it is delightfully optimistic.
Lo’s follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Club was recently released in October and occurs almost 60 years later. While A Scatter of Light follows a new protagonist, it follows a similar structure where the story unfolds in front of historical events, in this case the legalization of gay marriage. My guess is that this would be a fantastic pair of books for anyone who loves thoughtful and engaging coming-of-age stories.