Last Night at the Telegraph Club

by Malinda Lo

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Prologue and Part 1 Summary

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Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078


The book opens with a thirteen-year-old Lily at the Miss Chinatown Contest with her family and her best friend, Shirley. Lily is fascinated by the women competing in the contest but feels that she shouldn’t be looking at them.

Chapter 1

Lily is now about to enter her senior year of high school. While she is helping out at the restaurant run by Shirley’s parents, the two girls notice a pair of women seated together. One of them is traditionally feminine and glamorous, while the other is somewhat masculine. The two are clearly close. Again, Lily is fascinated. On the same night, she notices an advertisement in the newspaper for a show at the Telegraph Club by a “male impersonator,” a woman who dresses up as a man and, in the photo, is indistinguishable from one. Lily rips the ad out of the newspaper and puts it in her pocket.

Chapter 2

A preoccupied Lily walks home, wondering about the Telegraph Club and the woman she saw. At home, it’s an ordinary evening with her brothers and parents. In her own room, which is connected to the living room, Lily waits for her family to go to bed. After they do, she gazes at the picture of the male impersonator. She places it alongside two other photographs of masculine women that she has collected and stares at them, intensely curious about the world they represent.

Chapter 3

Lily goes to Macy’s with her mother. Putting herself at a little distance from her mother, Lily encounters a line of clothing that she finds exciting. A saleswoman tells her about the clothes, but her mother arrives and tells her she has no place to wear them. Lily’s mom makes her try on some more practical clothes instead, but they don’t suit her. When her mother goes to find another outfit, Lily reflects a memory of wanting to buy a chemistry set but being told she should have a doll instead, which made her angry. Her mother brings her a better-fitting outfit, but Lily still doesn’t feel like herself in it.

Chapter 4

In a Senior Goals class designed to prepare students for life after high school, Lily and three classmates are assigned to talk about their past and current life dreams. Shirley and a boy named Will Chan have fairly conventional dreams, but Lily and a white girl named Kathleen bond over their shared interest in space and flying. Shirley is insulting to Kathleen, who stands up for herself in turn. 

After class, Shirley tells Lily about a picnic she is going to with Will and some other friends. She insists that Lily come to the picnic. Once Lily has agreed, she goes looking for Kathleen but can’t find her.

Chapter 5

On the way home from school, Lily walks towards the Telegraph Club but doesn’t get all the way there. Instead, she goes to Thrifty, a drugstore where she has seen romance novels. Today, she sees a novel about two women and excitedly reads part of it. Because she doesn’t want to be seen buying it, she ultimately leaves. At night, she fantasizes about the story.

Chapter 6

The picnic turns out to be a larger event than Shirley admitted, and Lily discovers Shirley’s reason for wanting to go: Will’s older brother, Calvin, is there. At the picnic, Lily meets some students from China who are unable to return home because of the political tensions between the United States and communist China. The picnic is peaceful and relaxing. Though Lily asks Shirley if she likes Calvin, Shirley refuses to answer, instead implying that Will likes Lily. At night, Lily tries to think about Will, but she finds him so boring that she falls asleep.

Chapter 7

A few days later, Will asks Lily to a dance. She is unable to answer and flees to the bathroom. Kathleen finds her there and makes an excuse on her behalf to Will. In the process of finding out what is happening, Kathleen sees Lily’s picture of the male impersonator. She tells Lily that she has seen the show. At first, Lily can’t respond to this either, but she ultimately asks Kathleen if they can walk home together. Kathleen tells Lily to call her Kath, which is what her friends call her.

Chapter 8

At school, Shirley confronts Lily about Will, telling her she has to talk to him. Kathleen and Lily walk out of the building together and go to an Italian shop Kathleen knows so they can buy some gelato and sorbetto. Eating their ice cream, the two talk about Kathleen’s experience going up in a plane. They see four women walk by, two of whom seem to be together. Kathleen watches them too. Though Lily thinks they are going to speak about it—or about the Telegraph Club—Kathleen never does. The two say farewell, briefly holding on to each other’s hands. 

Chapter 9

When Lily gets home, her father, who is a doctor, tells her that he needs to speak to her. It turns out that two FBI agents interviewed her father about one of his patients, who they think is communist. The patient in question turns out to be Will’s brother, Calvin. The picnic Lily attended was held by the Chinese American Democratic Youth League, a leftist organization that the United States government thinks is communist. Lily is under suspicion of being a communist because she was at the picnic. Her father warns her that her family needs to make it clear they are loyal to the United States. 

After her father leaves, her mother reveals that the FBI agents have taken away Lily’s father’s citizenship papers, because he would not sign a document saying that Calvin is a communist. Lily’s mother makes her promise to tell her parents if she finds out that Shirley or any other friend is involved with the League.

Interlude: Grace, Twenty Years Earlier

Grace, Lily’s mother, meets a handsome young man, Joseph Hu, at a church gathering. The pastor and a fellow congregation member introduce them. Joseph is a Chinese man who has come to the United States to study medicine, while Grace is a nurse of Chinese ancestry who was born in Santa Barbara. The two chat about China and their life experiences. That night, she thinks about him and has complicated feelings about her relationship with China.

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Part 2 Summary