Once again, Malinda Lo delivers another coming-of-age lesbian novel that will surely be on my recommendations list for all young queer readers. Like in Telegraph Club, Lo encapsulates a part of queer history and allows the reader to dive into the community at the time, feeling unapologetically and proudly queer.
Our protagonist, Aria Tang-West, is very different from Telegraph Club’s Lily Hu. Certain of herself and with her own experience to share, she finds herself thrown into the world of the working-class lesbian community of San Francisco. As a novel protagonist, she is exceptional in her awareness of her own flaws and limitations as well as her own complexity and messiness. She is someone who makes mistakes and is aware of them and continues to do so, without the naivete that is commonly associated with a coming-of-age novel protagonist. She is confident in areas that she is comfortable in, awkward in areas that are new to her, and feels as if she were someone you might have known from high school.
The other characters in the novel are certainly memorable as well, from Aria’s artist widowed and aging grandmother, her grandmother’s gardener (and Aria’s love interest), her two best friends, and the rest of their friends in the lesbian community. One of the reasons that this book felt emotionally short, however, was the lack of development of the side characters. They were all distinct, and we had the potential to love them just as much as Aria, but it felt like we spent so long in Aria’s head and not often enough with our other characters that their own struggles felt shallow. Aria’s best friends, Tanya and Haley, for instance, had their own personal explorations of sexuality and friendship that got caught off short and felt as if they lacked a solid resolution. Even Steph, the main love interest, felt shallow at times, with the discussions of her gender perception and identity as a butch lesbian feeling cut short and vague. There was definitely more room for discussion of lesbian culture, although Lo does a great job of referencing lesbian historical figures such as Bernice Bing and Adrienne Rich.
The writing, while beautiful in its descriptions and discussions of its themes, felt a little too tell and not show at times. We were told Aria’s emotions too easily, rather than being able to discern them for ourselves. Despite this, though, Lo delivers a perfect blend of themes to guide us through Aria’s coming-of-age and incorporates aspects of art, science, and love to appeal to every person driven by a need to explore, create, and know themselves better.
If anything, the main reason that the story felt emotionally short was in various subplots at play - Aria and Steph’s illicit affair, Aria’s issues with her mom, her friends’ own illicit affairs ending poorly, her relationship with her grandmother and grandfather, and her own exploration of her queerness. The potential was there for sure, but there was definitely more to be developed, and the emotional impact of the climax of the novel did not have the full force it could have. The epilogue also felt quite abrupt and on the nose, although the character development displayed in that scene was clear.
Like in Telegraph Club, her novel is a love letter to California (though I would not have minded had Aria been allowed to explore San Francisco’s Chinatown as well). Still, we find ourselves exploring Northern California and all of the areas that make up its lesbian community as well. It would have been interesting to explore more of these defined areas, such as Harvey Milk’s The Castro and other important parts of queer history, but nevertheless, you are able to tell that Lo writes these areas with fondness.
Overall, I enjoyed the themes of the novel as well as the different aspects of creativity that Lo lets Aria explore herself. Having a diverse cast of bisexual, lesbian, and other queer characters from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds made this a strong read for anyone looking to find themselves in a story. It is a novel that I greatly enjoyed personally, and found that it was a solid companion novel to Last Night at the Telegraph Club.