Book Talk: *Mary Ann in Autumn,* by Armistead Maupin

Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel
Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel
Armistead Maupin
Harper (2010), Edition: 1, Hardcover (0061470880 / 9780061470882)
Fiction, 304 pages
Source: purchased e-book (Kindle) (ASIN B003VIWNK8)
Reason for reading: favorite series

Opening Lines: “There should be a rabbit hole was what she was thinking. There should be something about this hillside, some lingering sense memory – the view of Alcatraz, say, or the foghorns or the mossy planks of the planks beneath her feet – that would lead her back to her lost wonderland.”

Book Description: Twenty years have passed since Mary Ann Singleton left her husband and child in San Francisco to pursue her dream of a television career in New York. Now a pair of personal calamities has driven her back to the city of her youth and into the arms of her oldest friend, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a gardener happily ensconced with his much-younger husband. Mary Ann finds temporary refuge in the couple’s backyard cottage, where, at the unnerving age of fifty-seven, she licks her wounds and takes stock of her mistakes. Soon, with the help of Facebook and a few old friends, she begins to reengage with life, only to confront fresh terrors when her checkered past comes back to haunt her in a way she could never have imagined. 

Armistead Maupin returns to the multicharacter plotlines and darkly comic themes of his legendary Tales of the City series. Among those caught in Mary Ann’s orbit are her estranged daughter, Shawna, a popular sex blogger; Jake Greenleaf, Michael’s transgendered gardening assistant; socialite DeDe Halcyon-Wilson; and the indefatigable Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann’s former landlady at 28 Barbary Lane.

Comments: Before there was Sex and the City, there were Tales of the City. Granted, it was a different city…and some different sex in that city. Armistead Maupin’s stories of singles and couples – gay, straight, and either/or – navigating their way through San Francisco over the course during a decade that went from the disco dazzle of the mid-70s to the AIDS crisis in Reagan’s America were originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle and collected into six novels. I read and re-read the series every couple of years throughout the 1990s – they’re probably the books I’ve read most as an adult. The plots were often outlandish – Episcopal cannibal cults! – and sometimes very specific to a certain time period – escapees from the Jonestown massacre! – but I grew to love the characters, and I got most of my education in gay culture from Maupin’s Tales.

After almost two decades away from the City’s characters, Maupin revisited some of them in 2007’s Michael Tolliver Lives, and now he’s back with them again, effectively coming full circle. The original Tales of the City opened when twentysomething secretary Mary Ann Singleton decided, on the last day of her San Francisco vacation, that she wasn’t going back home to Cleveland. And she never did, although twelve years later she did leave the city – and her husband, adopted daughter, and AIDS-infected best friend – for an East Coast career opportunity. That fizzled, but Mary Ann stayed on, marrying a wealthy businessman and becoming stepmother to his young son, while life went on without her in the City by the Bay. The aforementioned Michael benefited from breakthroughs in AIDS treatments and found a much younger husband; ex-husband Brian raised daughter Shawna on his own and, once she was on her own, took off by himself to explore the USA in an RV; and Shawna became “Grrrl on the Loose,” a high-profile sex blogger. But having reconnected with them all a few years earlier, Mary Ann doesn’t think twice about flying back to San Francisco in the wake of two major personal crises.

All of the preceding plot discussion is meant to set the scene for this novel…but since, like the preceding Tales, Mary Ann in Autumn is strongly driven by plot, I won’t say more. Maupin continues to be tuned in to contemporary culture; as mentioned, Shawna is a blogger, and Michael’s husband Ben introduces Mary Ann to Facebook. That introduction leads to a mysterious connection that becomes an unwelcome reminder of a thirty-year-old loose end – something Mary Ann does NOT need to deal with on top of the marital and health crises that sent her back to San Francisco in the first place.

While Maupin has brought some newer, younger characters into the fold, it’s my familiar favorites that keep me reading. I do consider the Tales books to be plot-driven, but the plot wouldn’t drive me if I didn’t care about the characters – and I do love these folks. Mary Ann and Michael are well into middle age now, facing – and talking about – the changes that come with it as they draw on their long history together. There are three major plot threads in the novel. One essentially stands on its own, but the other two begin to overlap and integrate as the novel progresses – and as they do, they pull in that thirty-year-old loose end and circle back to the very first Tales. Having said that, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the earlier books in the series before picking up this one. But if you have, you’ll make some connections that a newbie wouldn’t, and that will enhance your enjoyment of the story. And if you haven’t, you’ll probably want to go read them all anyway, just to fill in the backstory.

I had thought that Sure of You (1990) would be the last of the Tales of the City, but now I’m glad it wasn’t. If Mary Ann in Autumn turns out to be where the story ends, I’m quite satisfied with where Armistead Maupin is leaving it.

Rating: 3.75/5

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