Tuesday 5 July 2022

CBR14 Book 16: "Last Night at the Telegraph Club" by Malinda Lo

Page count: 415 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Official book description:
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.
This book turned out to be something very different from what I was expecting, and I'm still not sure if I would have rated it higher and it would have taken me less than almost a month to finish it if it came along at a different time. It certainly keeps appearing on all sorts of "Must Read" lists, and seems both critically acclaimed and highly rated by regular readers. The book description tells us that it's going to be the forbidden love story of two young women in 1950s San Francisco, but while the book also features a Chinese American woman gradually realising that she's falling for one of her classmates, and them sneaking out at night to visit a lesbian bar, it seems almost like a subplot. Lily's identity as a lesbian is a lot less focused on than her place as a Chinese American, bound between personal wishes and desires, and the duty to her family and community, growing up in a paranoid society where the government is in a panic, hunting Communists everywhere. 

Lily's father is a respected doctor, but he nevertheless has his papers taken away because he refuses to confirm or deny one way or another that one of his patients is a Communist. Lily's mother is a nurse, deeply concerned with propriety and making sure that their family's reputation is spotless. Lily's Chinese American friends all only seem interested in dresses, older boys, and dating, while she wants to study advanced math and science and dreams of becoming an engineer, and maybe even going to space one day. The only other girl in her advanced math class, Catholic Kath Miller wants to be a mechanic and a pilot, not exactly your traditional career path for a young woman in the 1950s either. Lily initially strikes up the friendship with Cath because they are the only two girls in their class, but it's revealed late in the book that Cath was aware of and taken with Lily long before they actually became friends, and later more.

This was the Cannonball Book Club book for May, when the theme was AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) writers. We had a vote to decide on the book, and this was my first choice, exactly because I had read and heard so much about it, and thanks yet again to e-book sales, I already had the book on my e-reader. As it turned out, the rather slow start and the somewhat tense subject matter (minority protagonist with a traditional family has homosexual stirrings) meant that when we had out Zoom book club meeting, every single reader had peaked ahead to the ending to see whether it ended in misery or not. If this was a YA romance, that would not be necessary, but the romantic subplot takes second place in Lily's coming of age narrative. Her discovering who she is, what she stands for and who she wants to be going forward is the centre plot of the book. 

In the post scripts at the end of the book, the author mentions that this was a very personal book to her, and it's obvious both from the postscripts and the story that she'd done a ton of research. So much of the research she's done is felt in the writing, to the point that if time travel is ever invented and I happen to end up in 1950s Chinatown in San Francisco, I'll be able to find my way around just fine entirely based on the descriptions in this book. Obviously, part of the joy of reading historical fiction is experiencing another time and place, but here, it did feel a bit as if the author also wanted to make sure that every single piece of historical trivia she'd discovered ended up on the page somehow, a bit to the detriment of the flow of the story. 

This may also be one of those YA books where reading it as an adult becomes a very different experience, because I personally, and pretty much all the others who were reading this for Cannonball book club agreed that the flashback chapters featuring the older characters, Lily's father, mother and aunt, were absolutely fascinating and we wanted more of their stories. So Malinda Lo could probably have a loyal following of fans buying her book about Chinese immigrants to America in the 1950s, as well. The chapters giving us insight into the older generations' lives and perhaps especially what their hopes and expectations had been in contrast to where they ended up were fascinating. 

This is my first book by Malinda Lo. I know she's written several fairy tale retellings with LGBTQ-themes, as well, so I'm sure it will not be the last of her books that I try.

Judging a book by its cover: The absolutely gorgeous cover of this book is one of the first things that drew me to it. It captures the scene and place of the story so perfectly and the contrast between the dark San Francisco streets and the bright neon signs, not to mention the one lamp post illuminating our two lovers is so pretty. I could easily have this cover as a poster for my wall. 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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