“The Days of Anna Madrigal”
by Armistead Maupin; Harper/Collins, 2014; 270 pages; $26.99.
Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” is regarded by many as an almost Dickensian commentary on the communities that made up San Francisco during the 1970s and the effects of that lifestyle on those communities and on America’s sexual and political landscapes. That cycle of books endeared itself to loyal readers and became a PBS series as well.
A lack of familiarity with Maupin’s characters will in no way hinder responses to this latest “Tales of the City” book. Taking the approach of “Michael Tolliver Lives” and “Mary Ann in Autumn,” his most recent books in the series, Maupin continues his new look at his beloved San Francisco. Despite a bit of political and sexual posturing, “The Days of Anna Madrigal” is a moving response to old age and to what family can be.
Anna Madrigal has turned 92 and is holding fast to two things: “the Zen of letting go of familiar pleasure” and the importance of “leaving like a lady.” Major characters from Maupin’s series remain her “logical family” and help her on her way.
Michael “Mouse” Tolliver has survived both the freedom of the 1970s and the strictures of the AIDS era. Even in his 60s, he’s still working hard at maintaining relationships with the surviving members of his former community at 28 Barbary Lane. Mary Ann Singleton left Barbary Lane, a husband, and a child to pursue a career as a television personality, only to return to San Francisco a while back. Brian Hawkins, 67 and in love one more time, remains ever bent on “tidying things up.”
As does Anna, who decides to follow members of her “family” who are on their way to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to become a part of the week-long city that is created annually at the Burning Man art community. But first Anna’s journey will take her to another part of Nevada, back to her 1930s childhood and to Lasko, the first boy she fell in love with at 16 when she was still the teen-aged Andy.
Maupin holds close to the structure of the earlier “Tales of the City.” There’s an embarrassment of intersecting plotlines, some more fun than others. His social commentary, his well-aimed barbs, and, especially, his estimable compassion for his beloved city and its denizens are the novel’s strengths.
If the earliest books in the series are overstuffed with looking forward, “The Days of Anna Madrigal” is a most-tender recounting of the past through Anna’s memories of her childhood and of an indiscretion she must resolve. And, poignantly, an older, mellower Armistead Maupin is on hand to help Anna find her way through her past.
“The Days of Anna Madrigal” is the ninth and supposedly final volume of the “Tales of the City” series. That’s bittersweet news. But, as Anna Madrigal, with all the majesty of the monarch butterfly “looming over them like the inevitable,” reminds us: “You just get to the end.”
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.