Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books have played a huge part in my reading life.
In 1997, a friend and I were headed for a three-month trip to the US with San Francisco as one of our stops. My then work colleagues clubbed together and a farewell present gave me some much-needed dollars tucked inside the first Tales of the City. So, I read the first book in the city where it was set and over following years read the nine books that followed; loving each one, calling them my ‘treat’ books and savouring another chance to enter the world that Maupin had created.
It feels melancholy then to be reviewing the last of the Tales of the City series The Days of Anna Madrigal – over twenty years after I started the books – and indeed, melancholy is the over-riding feel of the novel.
Again, we follow one of modern literature’s most loved and unforgettable characters, the inimitable Anna Madrigal – legendary transgender landlady and pot smoker extraordinaire – as she embarks on one last road trip to exorcise the ghosts of her past. At 92, she has plans to ‘leave like a lady’ having finally found peace with her devoted caregiver Jake. 28 Barbary Lane may now be sold, but her ‘logical family’ remains; Brian Hawkins and his adopted daughter Shawna, Mary Ann Singleton and her beloved Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, all of whom have thought of Anna as a mother for the best past of 40 years.
As the novel opens, some members of the family are headed for a trip to Burning Man in the Nevada Desert, where Shawna hopes to conceive a child through artificial insemination. Despite receiving an invitation, Anna has another destination in mind. She asks Brian to take her back to Winnemucca, where she spent her childhood as a boy called Andy, living in the town’s whorehouse. She has one last thing she wants to do and, in flashbacks, the reader learns the full story of how a young boy called Andy came to be Anna Madrigal.
Much of the appeal of The Days of Anna Madrigal, as with most of the books in the series, derives from catching up with these much-loved characters. This means a lot of the start of the novel is exposition, bringing the reader up to date with who is where and with whom. Maupin writes with his usual light touch and humour, and these contemporary updates are a nice counterpoint to the historical flavour of the flashbacks to the Blue Moon Motel of Anna’s youth.
I do not want to give away any spoilers for anyone who has either never read the series, or hasn’t got this far, but rather than a sense of conclusion, The Days of Anna Madrigal evokes a sense of continuum. Anna has been at the heart of these novels for so many years and rather than offer the end of her story, Maupin offers us her beginning, a smart approach that brings the story in a full circle rather than to a full stop.
The book explores ageing and change with a sensitive touch. Anna is 92 and knows that her time left is limited, while Michael at 62 feels the same, but has been given a second chance at life courtesy of better AIDS medication and a younger husband. As Anna reaches the end of her majestic life, it raises questions in all of her family members about the way they are living and the way they want to be remembered.
If only he knew, thought Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.
In his poem ‘The Aerodrome’, Seamus Heaney writes ‘if self is a location, so is love’ and The Days of Anna Madrigal explores how, over time, this group of people have become bound together by love rather than by location. The loss of 28 Barbary Lane, that iconic boarding house which brought these characters all together in the first place, is less traumatic that it first would seem. Shawna’s wish to have a child, another generation of the Barbary Lane family, fittingly comes about in a less than logical way, as this family has always come together – purely by chance.
As with all the Tales of the City books, there are ridiculous coincidences, cliff-hanging chapter endings and overly sentimental encounters, but Maupin’s wit and warmth make it all believable. As the book comes to a close and the characters are all gathered in the same place, he resists the urge for one last emotional reunion and instead focuses on his leading lady, the wonderful butterfly that is Anna Madrigal. The final pages are a fitting tribute to this iconic character.
If you have never read the Tales of the City series, this is not the place to start. The Days of Anna Madrigal is an accumulation and needs to be appreciated as such. I envy any reader the chance to start at the beginning and become immersed in the lives of Anna, Mary Ann, and Mona, Mouse and Brian and the wonderful world of 28 Barbary Lane and while I’m sad that the series has ended, it makes sense. Maupin’s characters have aged and San Francisco, the city that is like another character in the books, has changed beyond recognition.
In the forty-odd years since Maupin started this serialised story for a San Francisco newspaper, his sprawling narrative has encompassed AIDS, prostitution, Jonestown, cancer, divorce, politics, love and loss. His great skill has been creating a world that is set in a very particular place and time and making what happens there universal. His works are resonant, without ever losing an innate sense of joyousness about the possibilities of life and what it can offer.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!