Book Review: Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel

By Carroll du Chateau

Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel by Armistead Maupin
Random House $38.99

Book cover of Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel. Photo / Supplied

Back in the 1970s Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City columns captured the off-beat spirit of San Francisco. One of Maupin's leading characters was Mary Ann Singleton, a TV presenter. Daily, he wrote about her life with her gay friends, giving both straights and gays an inside look at San Francisco's day-to-day romances, personalities and battles against the system. His columns brought new understanding, moral support, a few laughs - and enormous pleasure.

For the next three decades, as Aids surged and then cowered into HIV, Maupin continued his Tales of the City. San Francisco gays and friends fought the right-wingers. The world became a more tolerant place. And all along Maupin's Tales narrated the story, mostly as daily serials in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Next came the books of the columns, followed by the television mini-series. In 2006 the original Tales of the City was voted Britain's all-time favourite gay novel.

Despite a few deviations along the way, Maupin is back with his eighth book in the Tales of the City series. Unlike his seventh novel, Sure of You (2007), which Maupin initially said was not part of the series, and was written in a different style, Mary Ann in Autumn is fair dinkum Tales of the City stuff.

The same likeable characters, who were in their 20s when Maupin started writing, are now in their 50s and 60s. Mary Ann is 57. Anna Madrigal, her eccentric, marijuana-growing former landlady at 28 Barbary Lane, who used to tape joints to the doors of her new tenants, appears again. Now she's probably in her 70s, and living with Jake Greenleaf, a transgender gardener. But although she often appears to be wrapped in some sort of shrug, she is still as sharp, worldly and surprising as ever.

Once again we are taken into the everyday life of San Francisco's edgy gay society. Mary Ann's world is thick with interesting attitudes to, and conversations around, sex. There's the tender portrayal of a long-term married gay couple; a young man faltering towards accepting he is gay; and the women, personified by Mary-Ann, whose best friends are, truly, gay men.

Indeed, it's the straight man, Mary Ann's husband, who gets the villain's part in this book after he runs off with her life coach. Meanwhile, she discovers she has cancer of the uterus.

Maupin's style means much of the novel is written as dialogue, which makes it a racy, intimate read. Some of the raunchiest pieces come in passing. The bits I enjoyed most were the conversations between Mary Ann and her friends - though I don't necessarily agree with what they're saying.

Listen to this: "No. Mouse, I don't want it in my mouth any more ... Lots of women are like this when they get to my age. Viagra is not our friend."

And Mouse's reply: "No, that's not what you do [confide in your life coach]. A life coach teaches you how to keep a gratitude journal."

But it's not all fun and games. After a long absence from San Francisco, Mary Ann tries to re-engage with life with the help of a few friends and Facebook - and runs into some people she had forgotten - but who have not forgotten her. And one sets out for revenge.

The wit, style and honesty that blasted Tales of the City into an international phenomenon in the 1980s is back in bucket-loads.

The plot twists and chops between scenes and storylines like a series of columns, which, for once, this book is not. Maupin describes it as "in the format of my earlier Tales novel, a multi-character tapestry of interwoven storylines".

A brilliant read, but to get the most out of it, you might find it worth refreshing yourself with the original Tales before beginning.

Carroll du Chateau is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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