Mary Ann In Autumn
Novelist Armistead Maupin returns to his "Tales of the City" novels with Mary Ann in Autumn, the eighth book in the series and the second since Maupin’s 2007 return, after an 18-year hiatus, to the characters that gay and straight fans worldwide have come to love.
Where the last book, Michael Tolliver Lives, was a first-person account that followed the series’ main male character--Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, a gay man who, in the 1980s, was the first in fiction to deal with HIV--the new novel sees Maupin adopting the style of the earlier novels, with multiple story lines and an third-person narration that jumps between the perspectives of different characters. The focal point here is Mary Ann Singleton, the series’ main female protagonist. The first book in the series--Tales of the City--started with Mary Ann’s relocation to San Francisco from Cleveland. In the course of the novels, Mary Ann became obsessed with her professional ambitions and ended up leaving San Francisco, her husband and daughter, and best friend Mouse. When Mary Ann showed up at the end of Michael Tolliver Lives, she--like the other characters--was older, and wearier; Mary Ann seemed nothing if not repentant.
Maupin extends that emotional tenor into the new book. Mary Ann is shaken by the simultaneous shocks of her marriage collapsing and a major health crisis. Seeking shelter and support, she heads to San Francisco, where Mouse and his husband, Ben, take her in. Ben much younger than Mouse, and wasn’t in the picture back in the day; he doesn’t share Mouse’s ties of loyalty and affection to Mary Ann. He’s a little resentful at first, but as he makes an effort to extend hospitality to Mary Ann, he warms up to her.
Mary Ann, in turn, takes a liking--not altogether platonic in nature--to Ben. But romance is not on her mind; what Mary Ann needs, and seeks, is connection and emotional support. Venturing onto Facebook, she finds herself embraced by old acquaintances and fans of her long-gone talk show. But a sinister message brings back painful memories just when Mary Ann is at her most vulnerable.
It would be easy for Maupin to lapse into a hermetic world of old friends sorting out their baggage, but the novelist is careful to avoid this (perhaps too careful: one major character, Mary Ann’s ex-husband Brian, is absent from the novel). Maupin keeps his story relevant and fresh by giving younger characters plenty of weight in the story. This doesn’t just include Ben, but also Shawna, Mary Ann’s daughter, who is now a sex blogger looking to break out of her accustomed niche and tell bigger stories. Shawna becomes interested in a homeless woman named Leia, and in the course of investigating Leia’s story stumbles onto a bigger web of interconnected events--which lead her back, eventually, to her own estranged mother.
Another young character is Mouse’s business partner Jake, a young transman who has adopted Mrs. Madrigal (yes! Still alive and still marvelously gnomic!) as his "tranmother." Jake meets a prospective romantic partner in Jonah, who is struggling with his own sexual identity. Maupin is delicate in handling these two--which is wise, given that the romance between the transgendered Jake and the "ex-gay" Jonah could so easily have lapsed into crude burlesque. Instead, the relationship between the two is both painfully tender and excruciatingly dissatisfied, because they each see something in the other they like--but won’t allow themselves to have.
Maupin has grown as a prose stylist over the years. The original six novels were so heavily dialogue-driven that they sometimes lacked for description of either external setting or internal observation; the spotlight was firmly on the verbal exchanges, which were realistic and funny (even if the plots sometimes veered toward the extravagant). Though Mary Ann in Autumn does incorporate some of the more colorful literary plumage of the early books (a mystery afoot, madly improbable coincidences cropping up), the book feels more rooted in the texture and detail of physical reality.
The characters have deepened, as well, remaining recognizable (Mouse truly digs tormenting Mary Ann with graphic descriptions of his intimate relations with Ben; Mary Ann loves putting on a shocked reaction) while having become more complex. Mouse and Mary Ann have not simply aged--they have matured, and Maupin captures this.
As a record of the times, the Tales of the City series has been matchless in verve and invention. Reading over the first six books is still an experience that transports you to San Francisco of an earlier era. The new books capture today: reading Mary Ann in Autumn is not just like catching up with old friends, it is catching up with them. There is no magical time warp at work here: Maupin’s characters are older, and a new generation is now frolicking just as the older set once did. These are literary friends that age with you: the best sort.
by Armistead Maupin
Publisher: Harper. Publication Date: November 2, 2010. Pages: 304. Price: $25.99. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN: 978-0-061-470-882