Review: Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin

I think if this book hadn’t received a good review I wouldn’t have bought it.  Maupin’s recent books haven’t done much for me, and Mouse, Brian, Anna, and even Mary Ann are like old friends.  Better to reread the old books again and again than change them with a not-so-good update.

Happily, I think Maupin really nailed it.  He brought my old friends back to life and aged them without ruining them.

I’ll begin this post with a spoiler alert – I’ll try not to reveal too much of the story but that will be difficult to do.  If you’ve read Tales of the City and are planning to read the book, I’d stop here.  If you’ve never read the series, this review will mean nothing to you.  Pick up the first book instead.

And now for a second warning – this book may make you feel very old.  Mary Ann is now, unbelievably, in her upper fifties.  Mouse is “the older man” in his relationship.  Anna is elderly and Shawna is a grown-up.

And a third warning – Brian, my favorite of the Tales characters, is nowhere to be found in this book.  He’s off touring the country in an RV.  Now do you feel old?

Maupin does something in this book I wouldn’t have expected.  He brings Mary Ann back to the land of the human beings.  One thing I loved about the series was Maupin’s ability to take his main character, make her someone we cared about, and then turn her into a mean, materialistic, selfish person.  In a way I was never so glad to see a person leave as I was when Mary Ann left San Francisco (more on this below).

For those who haven’t read them, the Tales of the City series was begun in 1976 as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle.  San Francisco is the main character of these stories, and Maupin’s love of the city is apparent.  The series begins with Mary Ann, who gets off the bus from Cleveland and enters a whole new world.  She’s lucky – she scores an apartment at a house on Barbary Lane, run by Mrs. Madrigal.  Mary Ann is a total square, but the rest of the Barbary Lane residents are not (Mrs. Madrigal tapes joints to all of her tenants’ doors).  Madrigal, Brian, Mouse and Mona decide to adopt Mary Ann despite her Cleveland ways and she ends up becoming part of this family and part of the city.

(If this sounds familiar it was made into a miniseries starring a young Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis.)

I lived in San Francisco for a short time and longed for the experience that Mary Ann had.  SF is an amazing, beautiful city – but at that time in my life I wasn’t in a “place” where I could enjoy it.  I didn’t feel hip enough, funky enough –instead it made me feel insecure, like everyone around me was experiencing something I wasn’t.  This is why I envied Mary Ann, who starts out an outsider but ends up calling San Francisco home.  And it’s why, when she rejected her friends and the city, it felt like a personal hit.

Mary Ann leaves San Francisco and doesn’t come back until this book, some twenty years later.  Maupin was so brutal in his depiction of Mary Ann in the last book, Sure of You, that it’s hard to predict where he’ll take her character now.  Certainly he can’t write an entire book where you still hate Mary Ann – what would be the point?  Although in the beginning of the book she hasn’t changed much – selfish, manipulative, bemoaning her own marital problems while caring little about the daughter she abandoned or the friends she wasn’t there for.  It seems for a while like we’re just going to get more of the same.

Maupin introduces some interesting new characters —  Ben is Michael’s husband and Jake is Michael’s young business partner.  Jake lives with Anna (Mrs. Madrigal) who has had a stroke and needs care; Jake is anxiously awaiting his sex change operation.  Anna has had a stroke and is fragile but still watches out for everyone. Shawna (who I wanted to like more than I did) is a well-known blogger about sex but wants to get into more personal subjects.  Otto is Shawna’s clown boyfriend (literally).  Michael is older and wiser but still insecure and still kind of a doormat when it comes to Mary Ann.  Dede has a brief role (she’s one of my favorite side characters in the series, a woman who survived both a posh conservative upbringing and the Jonestown massacre).  Maupin brings back one other former character in this book, but I won’t say who.

Maupin’s story lines can always be a little over the top but as in the previous books, he raises a surprising number of serious issues – homelessness, drug use, pedophilia, gay marriage – in what is otherwise light reading.  He also, as always, sets his book firmly in time and place.  For example, Skype and Facebook aren’t just name-drops, but actually worked into the story.

What Maupin really gives us is characters, and the things they (and we) wrestle with on a daily basis – love, health, self-esteem, sex, career, marriage, friendship.

Was this the best book in the series?  No, but it doesn’t matter; I’m just grateful for another chance to spend time with these old friends.

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