Last Night at the Telegraph Club

by Malinda Lo

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club Summary

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo is a 2021 novel about Lily, a Chinese American girl who comes of age in San Francisco in the 1950s.

  • Lily is a high school senior interested in math and rocketry. She befriends a classmate named Kath, against the advice of her friend Shirley.
  • As Lily and Kath fall in love, Kath begins taking Lily to the Telegraph Club, a fixture of the local lesbian community.
  • After a raid on the Telegraph Club, Lily’s family learn of her sexuality and struggle to accept her truth, especially given the threatening climate of racial prejudice.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145

Lily Hu is a Chinese American girl living in San Francisco in the 1950s. She is in her senior year of high school. While reading the newspaper one day, Lily sees an ad for a “male impersonator” at a place called the Telegraph Club. Lily is fascinated. At school, she meets a girl named Kath, who discovers Lily’s interest in the Telegraph Club. 

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Lily’s old friend Shirley wants her to date a classmate named Will Chan, but Lily has no interest. The girls attend a picnic with Will and his older brother Calvin, whom Shirley is interested in. It turns out that the police suspect Calvin is a communist and have taken citizenship papers away from Lily’s father, a doctor, because he will not condemn Calvin, who is one of his patients. Lily’s parents tell her to stay away from Calvin and the political group that hosted the picnic.

Shirley and Lily agree that they will not see the group again. When a girl leaves the committee organizing the school dance, Lily joins it to help Shirley out. Meanwhile, her friendship with Kath is growing. Kath reveals that a friend of hers, Jean, is a lesbian, and that they have gone to the Telegraph Club together. Lily and Kath have a cloaked conversation about lesbianism and then a more open one about rockets and their future career ambitions. 

At the dance, Lily feels overwhelmed, and she takes a walk outside with Kath. They make a plan to go to the Telegraph Club. Back inside, Shirley warns Lily about Kath, telling her that Kath’s friend Jean was caught being intimate with another girl at school. Lily refuses to say she will end her friendship with Kath, leading to a rift between her and Shirley. Kath and Lily go bowling together, building their bond. Then Kath tells Lily that she has gotten her a fake ID so they can go to the club.

Lily sneaks out of her family’s apartment to meet Kath and go to the Telegraph Club. There, she is excited by the male impersonator but feels uncomfortable in the unfamiliar environment, especially when white women draw attention to her being the only Chinese person present. At the end of the night, Lily successfully sneaks back into her parents’ apartment.

During an air-raid drill at school, Lily and Shirley reconcile. They meet at Shirley’s family’s restaurant and banter together as usual, but Lily feels that she is being tested. 

Thanksgiving comes, and as Lily’s family has their meal, she overhears them talking about the dangerous political situation for Chinese Americans. Lily is concerned but also distracted by her own thoughts and feelings.

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Lily sneaks out to the Telegraph Club again. This time, she meets Kath’s infamous friend Jean and gets to know some of the other women a little better. However, she still feels out of place.

Shirley calls Lily and persuades her to go to a park with her. They talk about their families and their experiences, and Shirley ultimately apologizes to Lily. Then, she reveals that she is going to enter the Miss Chinatown contest and that she needs Lily’s help. Back among her old group of friends, Lily has less time for Kath. But she manages to pull Kath aside and show her that she still wants to spend time with her. They agree to go to the Telegraph Club on December 30th.

That night, they meet on their usual corner and walk to the club. There, they sit with the other women and listen to their conversation, which Lily finds confusing. She does not understand the women’s joking tone when they discuss the dangers of being a lesbian in 1950s America. 

Lana, the girlfriend of Tommy the male impersonator, invites all the women back to the apartment she and Tommy share. At the apartment, Lily feels overwhelmed and confused, especially after multiple people assume that she and Kath are together. The two girls leave the party, and Kath asks Lily what is wrong. Reluctantly, Lily admits that she has feelings for Kath. Kath is delighted, and the two girls kiss for the first time in a nearby alley.

Lily goes shopping with Shirley and their other friends, so that Shirley can find a gown for the Miss Chinatown pageant. In the store, she runs into one of the women from the Telegraph Club, but the two show no signs of recognizing each other. Lily realizes that these women exist in the world outside the club as well.

At school, Lily and Kath arrange to meet for more kissing—first in a closet, then in a deserted and locked classroom. There, they have sex. Both are happy, and each feels tender about the other.

Later, at Shirley’s house, Lily and her friends watch Shirley practice delivering her Miss Chinatown speech. Lily gives frank feedback, which Shirley grudgingly appreciates.

Once again, Lily sneaks out to the Telegraph Club. This time, though, the club is raided by the police, and some of the women are arrested. In the chaos, Lily is separated from Kath, and she cannot find her again. She sneaks back home.

The next morning, the events at the Telegraph Club are in the newspaper. Lily cannot reach Kath and is terribly worried about her. Then, Shirley arrives at the Hu apartment and tells Lily that she was seen outside the Telegraph Club, and that word is going to get around about her being a lesbian if she doesn’t deny it right away. Lily refuses to deny her identity. Shirley also tells her that Kath was caught.

Lily realizes that she must tell her parents directly. Coming out to her mother is very hard, because her mother insists that no good Chinese girl is a lesbian. Ultimately, she slaps Lily, and Lily walks out. First, she goes to Kath’s apartment and leaves a message there with Kath’s sister Peggy. Then she finds herself at Lana’s apartment. Lana takes her in and cares for her.

In the morning, Lily’s aunt, Judy, appears at Lana’s door, having tracked Lily down. She takes Lily back to her family. As the family celebrates the Chinese New Year, they pretend everything is normal. But the next day, Lily is not allowed to go back to school. She talks with her parents, who try again to get her to turn her back on her identity. Lily, however, refuses. So her parents tell her that she is going to go away with Aunt Judy to finish high school elsewhere, never to see Kath again. Lily packs and goes away, angry and hopeful at the same time. In the epilogue, she and Kath encounter one another again after a year. Though they cannot fully be together, their feelings have not changed.

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