book review: last night at the telegraph club by malinda lo


Rating: 5 out of 5.


Physical book + eBook

Page Count:


Release Date:



Young Adult Historical Fiction


A story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day. 


trigger warnings.

  • Homophobia
  • Lesbophobia
  • Miscarriage
  • Misogyny
  • Racial slurs
  • Racism


(spoilers ahead!)

“Sometimes Judy felt a deep and burning anger at her adoptive country and she never knew what to do about it. She had come to America for an education and had intended to return home. But first, she had met Francis, and then the communists had taken over. And now, unfortunately, she couldn’t leave. America had given her so much in the four years since she arrived. But it also regularly reminded her of how it saw people like her.” 

Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the asian american experience

The main aspect of this book that attracted me was that it was written and about an Asian American. At this point, there are tons of stories out there about coming out, and being queer in America, but not very many by and about Asian Americans — especially those about queer Asian Americans in a non-contemporary setting.

I personally loved and related to many parts of this experience that Lo represented throughout the story, and found the addition of Lily’s mother’s perspective especially interesting in adding an additional depth of understanding to the immigrant experience. This storytelling format actually really reminded me of Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage, which I just reviewed and loved just as much.

“She’s having a hard time right now because you’re not what she expected. But we’re never what our parents expected. They have to learn that lesson.” 

Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Although a lot of this story is about Lily’s coming out, it is just as much about being an Asian American female, and one belonging to a Chinese American family living in San Francisco during the Red Scare. The two identities are essentially intertwined here. And the addition of Judy’s (Lily’s mother’s) perspective on the situation, and prolonged experiences of racism and living in America, really add to the reader’s understanding as they convey elements of the experience that Lily is not necessarily able to understand.

the coming out.

“It’s not a mistake,” Lily said miserably. Her mother strode across the kitchen and slapped her. Lily jerked backward, shocked. Her mother hadn’t hit her in years—since she was eight or nine—and she instantly felt like that child again, cowering in fear of another strike. With the terror came a crippling guilt and the belief that she must have done something awful, that she deserved this punishment.” 

Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

I loved the way that Lo tackled Lily’s coming out experience — and I’m not referring to her coming out to her friends and family (although I thought that was well done, too). I’m talking about her coming out to herself. It was very different from the coming out stories I’ve previously read in that Lily goes through this experience without real knowledge of what being gay, or queer, is. This seems to be the result of both the time period and the community she’s a part of. As someone who grew up in a predominantly Asian American community in America, I can ascertain that the concept of being gay, or queer, was never discussed. All my exposure to it came from the media I consumed–and fittingly, Lily’s first exposures to the queer community are from drugstore paperbacks and magazines.

“Are you like the girls in the book too? Because I think I am.” 

Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the setting

What initially made the book so intriguing to me was actually its setting — I spent the last four years living in Berkeley, and made many trips down to San Francisco. It’s an area I know a lot about geographically, culturally, historically — and I was curious to read a YA book set in areas I was so familiar with. I lived right near the famous Telegraph Ave., and although that’s not where the titular Telegraph Club is, it led me to pick up this book. Although I know I would have enjoyed it without this background experience, I think it added an extra layer of depth and enjoyment to the story for me.

“A few hours at home and the Telegraph Club seemed more like a fantasy than a real thing. This troubled her. It felt as if someone had taken an eraser to her memory – to her very self – and rubbed at it, then blown away the remains.” 

Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the writing.

The writing was enthralling, engaging, and beautiful. I loved the metaphorical prose, and the story flowed magically — it was so easy to just…keep on reading until reaching the end.

“but she felt her uncertainty like an unreachable itch between her shoulder blades.” 

Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club


Go read this book!! It’s definitely going up there as one of the best books I’ve ever read, if you need more motivation than all of the awards the book’s already received. I think it’s something everyone would enjoy, and I especially recommend it to those of you who have only read white queer stories — if you’re looking for a place to start (keyword) your journey of exploring diverse queer rep, this is definitely a great book to begin your journey.

Have you read Last Night at the Telegraph Club? Let me know what your thoughts were down below!

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day <3

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