Here’s a beautiful and chewy historical novel that lives up to its slew of awards – a Cybils Young Adult Fiction finalist in addition to the four pictured on the cover.
Last Night at the
by Malinda Lo.
Read by Emily Woo Zeller.
Listening Library, 2021.
Listened to audiobook on Libby.
In San Francisco’s Chinatown of the early 1950s, 17-year-old Lily Hu dreams of rockets even as she’s one of only two girls in her high school’s advanced math class. The other girl, Kathleen Miller, is one she’s had classes with before but only starts to get to know better now, as Lily discovers that Kathleen also dreams of the sky and being a pilot.
Amid the vivid scenes of Lily’s life – her tiny room, the girdles and bobby socks, picnics and Miss Chinatown parades – we also see her growing awareness of her own sexuality. It starts small, as Lily is captivated by a newspaper ad for male impersonator Tommy Andrews, appearing at the Telegraph Club. Next, she finds a paperback on the spinner at a grocery store, which fascinates her with the story of growing attraction between two women.
But even as Lily explores this and builds a friendship with Kathleen, she’s aware that any wrong move will put her in danger of her family’s rejection and her family in danger from the government, as the Red Scare is in full swing and her father is already being investigated for his ties to China. The story moves from its slow pace as Lily feels stuck in her life, ratcheting up as tensions build on multiple fronts. It wasn’t an easy read for me, but one that I couldn’t pull away from. I especially appreciated how long it takes for Lily to identify what she’s feeling – it’s not a case of her knowing from the beginning exactly what’s going on. Emily Woo Zeller does a fantastic job as always, playing the many different kinds of voices perfectly.
I have of course read several books by Malinda Lo, and hadn’t really read anything about the plot before I picked this up, belatedly, after it won all the awards last year, including the National Book Award. The straight historical fiction is quite a different feel than her previous fantasies, but it’s still well worth reading. I read it over a month ago, and find myself still coming back to thinking about it, many books later.
I recommend all of Malinda Lo’s books – I’ve reviewed Ash and Huntress, and the visits to the forbidden dance club make this a good pairing with Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.
Emily Woo Zeller has narrated many, many books, including Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon and The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, just to name a few I’ve read/listened to myself.