57 pages 1 hour read

Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a 2021 coming-of-age Young Adult novel centering on the experience of Lily Hu, a teenager in 1950s San Francisco, as she comes to terms with her sexuality while also dealing with the prevalent societal racism toward Chinese Americans. Lily comes across an ad for the titular Telegraph Club in the newspaper and then discovers that one of her classmates, Kath, has been to the nightclub. The story proceeds over the course of five months with an epilogue that takes place a year later as Lily and Kath navigate their relationship and the secrecy that comes with the LGBTQ+ community in the mid-20th century.

Malinda Lo is also the author of several other novels, including A Line in the Dark, Ash, Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance. Last Night at the Telegraph Club won not only the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature but also the Stonewall Book Award for Young Adult Literature and the Asian/Pacific Award for Young Adult Literature.

This study guide refers to the 2022 edition published by Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Content Warning: The source material contains terms now considered offensive in referring to Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans, and African Americans. Lo writes in her Author’s Note that her decision to use such terms was driven by an effort to stay true to historical accuracy, given that she tells the story from the perspective of a 1950s teenager. This study guide replicates these terms only in direct quotations.

Plot Summary

In the Prologue, the novel opens with Lily at the 1950 Miss Chinatown Pageant, where she remarks that she has never seen so many Chinese girls look “so American” (4). At the end of the competition, she and her friend Shirley go onstage, and Shirley appears to be exactly “what a Chinese girl should look like” (8-9).

Part 1 jumps to September 1954, as Lily prepares to start her senior year of high school. In the newspaper one day, she finds an ad for a performance by Tommy Andrews, a “male impersonator,” at the Telegraph Club. Unsure what draws her to his picture, she rips it out and stores it at home.

In her Senior Goals class, Lily notices Kathleen (“Kath”) Miller when she compliments Lily’s desire to go to space; Lily is likewise fascinated with Kath’s dream to be a pilot, especially since neither of their dream professions have many women in them. They’re also in an advanced math class together.

When Lily walks home that night, she finds a novel at the drugstore that depicts two women in love. Reading it makes her feel like she finally understands something about herself. Soon after, she attends a picnic with Shirley at the invitation of their friend Will. At school the next week, Will asks Lily to the fall dance, and, feeling overwhelmed, she excuses herself and goes to the restroom. There, her backpack falls to the floor, and the picture of Tommy Andrews falls out. When she opens the door, Kath is there, and she reveals that she has been to the Telegraph Club. They start to become better friends.

Soon after, Lily’s parents pull her aside to ask about the picnic, concerned that it was actually hosted by a Communist organization called Man Ts’ing. They tell her not to go to any more of these events, and her mother reveals that the FBI took her father’s citizenship papers because he refused to name one of his patients as a Communist.

Lily takes Kath to the drugstore to show her the novel she found, asking if she has ever heard of relationships between women. When Kath says she has, Lily explains more about the plot, and Kath says that the Telegraph Club is for lesbians (93). At the school dance, Lily and Kath leave early and make plans to go to the club. In addition, Shirley pulls Lily aside to tell her about a rumor that one of Kath’s friends was caught with a girl the year before and suggests that Lily stay away from Kath. Instead, Lily stops talking to Shirley.

Lily sneaks out to go to the Telegraph Club, where she hears Tommy Andrews sing. She’d been looking at her picture for weeks, but after hearing her sing, she realizes that Tommy is a real person, which scares her a little. She and Kath meet several women who frequent the club, including Tommy’s girlfriend, Lana. They decide to go again.

At school, Lily and Shirley make up. Shirley decides to enter the Miss Chinatown pageant and asks Lily to be on her support committee. Lily agrees.

The day before New Year’s Eve, Lily and Kath meet in their usual spot and go to the Telegraph Club. Eventually, they’re invited over to Tommy and Lana’s apartment. Lily gets drunk and wanders away from Kath looking for the bathroom. She’s disoriented after several people ask if she and Kath are together; even Tommy Andrews says something. Lily worries that even Kath has noticed that she has feelings for her. When Lily decides to leave, Kath goes with her, worrying about what Tommy said and asking if Lily has feelings for Tommy. Lily reveals that she is interested in Kath, and Kath reciprocates. They kiss.

After Christmas break, Lily and Kath sneak around and eventually have sex in a locked classroom at school. When they next decide to go to the club, it gets raided, and Lily and Kath are separated. Kath doesn’t appear at their meeting spot, and Lily worries. The next day, Shirley comes over to tell Lily that she was seen leaving the club. She says that it’s good that Kath was arrested and that Lily can still get together with Will if she denies anything happened. Empowered by her feelings for Kath, Lily refuses to say that it was a mistake. Shirley tells her not to come to the Miss Chinatown Pageant.

Knowing that word will get out about her, Lily reveals to her mother that she went to the Telegraph Club. Her mother doesn’t believe her at first and then, like Shirley, says that it was a mistake and that they can fix it. Lily refuses and when her mother offers an ultimatum, Lily leaves. After trying to find Kath at her house, she goes to Lana’s and Tommy’s apartment. There, Lana comforts her, allowing her to stay with them. The next day, Lily’s Aunt Judy shows up, having found a slip of paper she’d left at home with Kath’s address on it and then stopping at Kath’s and retrieving Tommy’s address, which Lily had left with Kath’s sister.

Judy takes Lily home, and she sits through Chinese New Year festivities, still unaware of where Kath is. Her parents then reveal that Lily is going to live with Judy, and they leave the next day. Lily gives a letter to her brother to deliver to Kath’s sister at school.

One year later, Kath and Lily reunite. Kath has a job fixing planes, and Lily is going to school at UCLA. They confess that they love one another.