Sunday, April 6, 2014

"The Days of Anna Madrigal," by Armistead Maupin

I have lived in San Francisco long enough to have read Armistead Maupin’s first iterations of “Tales of the City” as they were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-70s, when I had very newly arrived here. These stories of new and established, young and old, gay and straight, struggling and rich residents of San Francisco were an instant hit, and we readers eagerly awaited each installment. Part of the fun was reading about local places and institutions we recognized, and learning about corners of the city and its various lifestyles that we hadn't known about. Since then Maupin has written nine volumes in the Tales of the City series, published between 1978 and 2014, most of which I have read, as well as a TV mini-series, starring the wonderful Laura Linney, which I watched with enjoyment some years ago. The ninth volume, and according to Maupin, the final one, has just been published; it is “The Days of Anna Madrigal” (Harper, 2014). This novel reunites us with the beloved characters we have followed over the years, but has a bittersweet sense of endings. As with the earlier novels, this one checks in on the lives of Michael Tolliver (now in a happy relationship with his younger husband, Ben), Mary Ann Singleton, and other main characters. The focus this time, as the title indicates, is the aging Anna Madrigal, who was the landlady of the building where the characters met and lived back in the beginning, when Michael and Mary Ann were very young and very new to San Francisco. Anna, who is transgendered, has always been the heart of the group, the surrogate mother, the source of wisdom and support and humor and, oh yes, of a seemingly bottomless supply of neatly rolled joints to be shared with her friends. Now that she is aging and needs help from the devoted young Jake (also transgendered) and other friends, she has to conserve her energy, but with the help of her friends, she is able to fulfill her wish to revisit the town she came from so long ago and to resolve a longstanding regret she has had about her first young love there. This novel also takes many of the characters on a trip to Burning Man. Although the writing is perhaps not for the ages, the characters are as compelling as always, and feel like old friends to those of us who have followed them all these decades. Maupin himself has moved to Santa Fe with his husband, but he is clearly still very fond of and connected to San Francisco. He and his work will always be symbols of the exciting times in this city when life opened up in so many ways for the young people who arrived here, looking for freedom to be themselves. Thank you, Armistead Maupin, for all these years of engaging stories and characters, and for what amounts to an extended love letter to San Francisco.

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