Award-winning author Malinda Lo returns to the Bay Area with another masterful coming-of-queer-age story, this time set against the backdrop of the first major Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage. And almost sixty years after the end of Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lo’s new novel also offers a glimpse into Lily and Kath’s lives since 1955.
Aria Tang West was looking forward to a summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her best friends–one last round of sand and sun before college. But after a graduation party goes wrong, Aria’s parents exile her to California to stay with her grandmother, artist Joan West.Aria expects boredom, but what she finds is Steph Nichols, her grandmother’s gardener. Soon, Aria is second-guessing who she is and what she wants to be, and a summer that once seemed lost becomes unforgettable–for Aria, her family, and the working-class queer community Steph introduces her to. It’s the kind of summer that changes a life forever.
After really loving Last Night at Telegraph Club, I was anyways interested to read what the author was gonna write next, but I definitely couldn’t resist this book at all because it’s kinda set in the same universe. And this turned out to be everything and nothing like I thought it would be.
Firstly, I was definitely expecting this to be a romance, just like Telegraph Club, and I think I should clarify right at the beginning that it is not. This is more of a coming of age story, finding out the truths about yourself, and figuring out your future. It’s about connections and honesty and dreams and art and so much more. It’s a slice of life story about family and friendships, so it moves at a sedate pace, taking us on a dreamy journey. We also get interludes philosophizing about art and artistic expression and music and astronomy and more, and I absolutely devoured it all. But there was something about it that left me a bit unsatisfied and I don’t know how to put a finger on it.
Aria is the sole POV that we get to read here but I felt like we were at a remove from her, and I never got to know her properly. She felt things deeply but also seemed completely detached at times, and I wasn’t sure how to understand this dichotomy. I also feel like I get to understand my own asexuality better when I’m reading a book like this, where the character is figuring out her own sexuality and I can see how what I felt at that age was so different. I could also definitely empathize with her wanting to understand herself better and also trying to live on the edge between her past and her future.
Through Aria, we also get to know the people who influence her. Her artist grandmother Joan becomes a source of inspiration for Aria in this summer before college, making her want to explore her artistic side before going to study for a science major. Her mom and dad also make small appearances though they have very different kinds of relationships with Aria. Joan’s genderqueer gardener/musician Steph evokes a spark in Aria, completely changing her perspective about what she could be. Their connection is immediate and intense and they had some of the most evocative and bittersweet moments in the story. Through Steph, we also get to meet her other queer friends and see Aria discover the queer community and the solidarity that exists, against the backdrop of the overturning of Prop 8 by the Supreme Court.
I thought this book works great in contrast to Telegraph Club. In that book, every gathering of the people of the queer community was an act of defiance and even acknowledging one’s sexuality felt almost impossible – it was amazing to see how much California has changed in the intervening 5-6 decades, the amount of visibility the queer community has, and the heartwarming solidarity that is depicted through the Dyke March and the Queer Music Festival. It shows that things have changed for the better, maybe not everywhere and not for everyone, but they are better.
Overall, this is a beautifully written story that moved with its stunning prose. While I may have liked a bit more depth in character relationships, it works very well as a bittersweet tale of first love, loss, grief, sexual awakening, finding your dreams and holding onto them. It will transport you to its tranquil California setting and make you wanna get lost in it. I definitely feel like I wanna visit this side of SFO – who knows when that’ll happen – but hopefully I’ll get to read Malinda Lo’s next before that.
Great review! I haven’t read Telegraph Club yet, but I hope to get to it (and this book too) soon.
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I hope you do. They really are such lovely books…