It's a complete coincidence that I ended up in San Francisco just days before Mary Ann in Autumn, Armistead Maupin's latest installment of the Tales of The City series, was released. The trip was planned well before I ever knew the release date of the novel, but once I learned of the close proximity of the two events, my trip to the Bay Area transformed into a pilgrimage of sorts to Maupin's endearing and iconic works, Mrs. Madrigal, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, and all the denizens of the Tales of the City.
After walking all the way from Market and Powell, getting lost, and going up and down Russian Hill at the grand old age of 46, I found myself, winded and sweating, standing on the steps of Macondray Lane--the real life inspiration for the house that has been etched into my psyche for so long--hoping to capture a little bit of the magic of that literary world. And it's only fitting that in the opening chapter of Mary Ann in Autumn, the titular character, Mary Ann Singleton, finds herself climbing those same stairs to catch a glimpse of her former home, 28 Barbary Lane. With a wistfulness and longing, the 57 year-old stares through the locked gate of the property, similarly trying to recapture the magic that had been her past life, one she abandoned so many years ago along with her husband and adoptive daughter.
With that scene, Maupin perfectly sets the tone for Mary Ann in Autumn, a sweet and solid entry in the Tales of the City mythos that is part nostalgia (for both the readers and the character of Mary Ann), and a deceptively simple exploration of the desire for one person to discover who they truly are after pursuing who they thought they wanted to be.
Mary Ann has returned to San Francisco after some shocking revelations in her personal life, and the first person she contacts is her old friend, Mouse, now happily married to the younger Ben. From the moment Maupin brings the two together, their voices are as if they have never been apart, easily falling into the playful (and sometimes serious) banter that made them an endearing couple of friends in the original works. And here is where the novel succeeds best: the rekindling of that relationship and the literary rehabilitation of Mary Ann.
In the original Tales novel and early sequels, Mary Ann Singleton was an immensely likable young woman, a naïve transplant to San Francisco from the bastion of conservatism, Cleveland. Her journey as she discovered who she was and how she reacts to a city as free as 1970s San Francisco was funny, charming, mysterious and a little bit sad. But starting in the 4th book in the series, Babycakes, Mary Ann found herself in search of a career and she became a not-so-likable person, one who seemed willing to turn her back on family and friends. It was disheartening for me as a reader to see Mary Ann transformed such. Now, don't get me wrong...it was utterly true to life. How many times have we all had someone in our lives who is incredibly dear to us who gets caught up in the desire to be something more and becomes someone we don't like so much any more? There was nothing at fault in Maupin's writing of those later three novels. It was spot on. I simply didn't want to see a dear, wonderful friend become someone I didn't like. I wanted her to always stay Mary Ann. And that, alone, is a testament to Maupin and the character he created. I never wanted her to change.
In Mary Ann in Autumn, though, we find a character who is, again, at a turning point. As she approaches the autumn of her life, she has obviously been taking stock, looking closely at her past choices, the repercussions of some not-so-great actions. In trying to find a way forward, she is looking back at the people she has left behind, one of whom happens to be herself. And she finds that little bit of herself, again. Don't get me wrong, Maupin doesn't magically convert Mary Ann back to whom she was. He doesn't absolve her of her sins. She's older, wiser, still a bit self-absorbed, but it almost feels as if she is exhaling all the inconsequential crap that has been in her life, so that she can breathe in again. And it is exactly in her relationship to Mouse that Maupin so expertly let's us like Mary Ann again, perhaps understand her a bit more.
Maupin also adds in outsiders, those who never knew the Mary Ann we all loved, to help in this rehabilitation, namely Mouse's husband, Ben who is a bit suspicious of this woman and her effect on Michael. Through him--someone without the shared history--we get to learn this new Mary Ann. As Mouse himself says to Ben "Look, I know you think she's a drama queen, but she's had some actual drama."
Now, in any Tales novel, a reader expects some humor, a little bit of mystery and wonderful characters. Maupin is in excellent form here, capturing everything we readers have loved about Tales, but never once relying on our nostalgia for the series. His 2010 San Francisco is just as vibrant and alive as his San Francisco of the 70s and 80s. It has simply grown and changed, morphed into something different, no less charming or infections as its previous incarnation.
In the mystery department, Maupin gives us Shawna, Mary Ann's estranged, adoptive daughter, now a popular sex-blogger looking for a new direction in her life. She fixates on an old homeless woman named Leia, and stumbles onto a mystery that she must solve, a mystery that gives us readers a genuine aha! moment or two that is richly satisfying. But that's not all...Facebook figures into it all as well, giving us yet another jolt that can't be revealed in a review. Now I tend to pride myself on figuring out twists and turns, but Maupin honestly got me on these. I didn't have it figured out until it was very clear that Maupin wanted me to. Perhaps I was just naive, but I was genuinely taken by surprise by the twists.
In the character department, Mrs. Madrigal is still with us and although her role is somewhat limited, she's just as pithy as always, each of her "dears" just warming my heart, and her spirit is richly pepered throughout the novel. DeDe Halcyon makes an appearance, as does D'or. And Maupin augments the Barbary Lane family with Jake Greenleaf, an immensely appealing trans-man, Michael's Ben, and Shawna's adorable and patient boyfriend Otto. These are all welcome additions to the family, feeling as natural as the characters we've all known for year.
Now, I have read a few reviews that mention the conspicuous absence of Brian Hawkins (Mary Ann's ex-husband and father of Shawna) and those who have read Michael Tolliver Lives know that the beloved Mona is no longer with us. But I never felt their absence in this novel because Maupin has expertly woven their spirits into the work. Mona is there...a large part of her spirit embodied in Shawna...and Brian is present as well, aspects of his personality richly resonant in two of the new characters. One might even spot a younger version of Mouse or, perhaps, a successor to Mrs. Madrigal.
In the end, Mary Ann in Autumn is still a love-letter to San Francisco. It's still a wonderfully magical series that, I think, Maupin has reinvented for the new millennium. He shows us that you can indeed go home again, though that home will have changed and grown just as we have. Most importantly, he shows us that while 28 Barbary Lane may have become a single-family dwelling, its spirit is still strong. Because 28 Barbary Lane isn't so much a time or a place, some clapboard building at the top of a set of rickety stairs...28 Barbary Lane is our "logical family," the family we've created and carry with us always, no matter where we may be.