A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (January 24, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
It may surprise you to know–it surprises me, when I think about it– that I’ve re-read the original six novels in Armistead Maupin’s long-running “Tales of the City” series more times than any other books in my adult life. I discovered it in my early twenties, and in addition to being thoroughly entertaining, it was a consciousness-raising experience for me.
“Tales of the City” began as a serial in a San Francisco newspaper nearly forty years ago, and the series has retained a serial’s ability to pull a reader into the story at any point. After nearly twenty years away from these characters, Maupin began revisiting them in 2007. The Days of Anna Madrigal is the ninth novel in the series and may truly be its finale, yet it’s as good a place to start as any of the books that precede it.
Maupin’s core group of characters–Michael, Mary Ann, Brian, and their landlady, Anna Madrigal–left their apartments at 28 Barbary Lane on San Francisco’s Russian Hill long ago, but they’ve remained connected as what Anna describes as a “logical” (as opposed to biological) family. Biology, however, is staking a claim on Mrs. Madrigal now. Having surprised nearly everyone, including herself, by making it to the age of ninety-two, she’s begun to feel an urgent need to deal with loose ends. Business she left unfinished decades earlier–when she fled her life as Andy Ramsey, the teenage son of the madam of the Blue Moon Lodge–is nagging at her. The entire logical family, including Michael’s husband and Brian’s thirtysomething bisexual daughter, will soon be off to the Nevada desert for a week at Burning Man, and the trip offers Anna the opportunity for a detour to Winnemucca and a visit to her past.
While much of The Days of Anna Madrigal explores Anna’s Depression-era youth, Maupin also establishes the novel in the immediate present through details like Burning Man and references to current events and media. This specificity is a hallmark of the series; each novel is something of a time capsule, yet the stories feel timeless. Character is revealed and plot is advanced more through dialogue than description, and Maupin strikes a good balance in presenting just enough background to clarify the story for newcomers while rewarding longtime readers with new insights into characters they know and love. If The Days of Anna Madrigal really is the last of the “Tales of the City,” the ending offers readers old and new the chance to revisit it all from the very beginning.
The Days of Anna Madrigal, the suspenseful, comic, and touching ninth novel in Armistead Maupin’s bestselling “Tales of the City” series, follows one of modern literature’s most unforgettable and enduring characters—Anna Madrigal, the legendary transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane—as she embarks on a road trip that will take her deep into her past.
Now ninety-two, and committed to the notion of “leaving like a lady,” Mrs. Madrigal has seemingly found peace with her “logical family” in San Francisco: her devoted young caretaker Jake Greenleaf; her former tenant Brian Hawkins and his daughter Shawna; and Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton, who have known and loved Anna for nearly four decades.
Some members of Anna’s family are bound for the otherworldly landscape of Burning Man, the art community in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where 60,000 revelers gather to construct a city designed to last only one week. Anna herself has another destination in mind: a lonely stretch of road outside of Winnemucca where the 16-year-old boy she once was ran away from the whorehouse he called home. With Brian and his beat-up RV, she journeys into the dusty troubled heart of her Depression childhood to unearth a lifetime of secrets and dreams and attend to unfinished business she has long avoided.
“Summer had been warmer than usual this year, but the heat that throbbed in the East Bay was already coaxing pale fingers of fog into the city. Anna could feel this on her skin, the chilly caress she had come to think of as “candle weather.” She had not owned a fireplace since her landlady days on Russian Hill, but, to her mind, the proper application of candlelight carried all the primal comfort of a bonfire.
“She grabbed the purple plastic firelighter on the sideboard in the parlor. Her legs, however, weren’t cooperating, so she steadied herself for a moment, slouching ludicrously on one hip. like Joan Crawford in forties gun moll mode. The thing in her wobbly hand was distinctly gun-like, complete with a trigger and a barrel.
“Mustn’t think of it as a gun. Think of it as a wand.”
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