Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

It is very rare that I re-read a book, even my favourites. I always have a fear that in doing so some of the charm will wear off or the surprises that you had on the first read won’t reappear. One series of books and indeed one book in particular, that I have returned to again and again over a good few decades is ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin. As it is LGBT History Month this month I decided it was a fitting time to return to Barbary Lane once again, hopefully bringing a few of you along with me.

***** Transworld Books, paperback, 1978, fiction, 269 pages, from my own bookshelves

At the end of her vacation from her homeland of Cleveland, Mary Ann Singleton decides, rather recklessly for her, that staying in the city of San Francisco should be a more permanent move. Initially moving in with her old friend Connie, who is a little more free and easy that Mary Ann can believe, she finds her own apartment at 28 Barbary Lane above her mysterious and initially rather odd seeming landlady Anna Madrigal, neighbours Mona, Mouse, Brian and soon Norman. It is Mary Ann’s story of arriving and settling in San Francisco that makes the initial tale in which more and more tales of the mixed bunch of characters around her diverge and merge off of, some linking back on each other and some adding twists and turns you wouldn’t see coming. All together they do, as the title suggests, make a wonderful collection of tales, and indeed a narrative of, the city. I don’t want to spoil the tales and their twists for you though so I won’t discuss the plot/s further.

For me the main joy of the book and this has been the case every time, in the fifteen years that I have re-read it on and off, is the fact that it feels like real life. The city of San Francisco comes straight off the page, I haven’t been there (and would love to if anyone fancies treating me, ha) but I feel I have, so vivid is the description and the atmosphere of the place from the luxury of the Halcyon’s apartments to the supermarkets and dry cleaners of downtown. In fact it does very much feel like a love letter to and from San Francisco in many ways.

‘Well, take your time. There’s a partial view, if you count that little patch of bay peeping through the trees. Utilities included, of course. Small house. Nice people. You get here this week?’
‘That obvious, huh?’
The landlady nodded. ‘The look’s a dead giveaway. You just can’t wait to bite into that lotus.’
‘What? I’m sorry…’
‘Tennyson. You know: “Eating the lotus day by day, To watch the crisping ripples on the beach, An tender curving lines of creamy spray; To lend our hearts and spirits wholly to the influence of”… something, something… You get the point.’
‘Does the… furniture go with it?’
‘Don’t change the subject while I am quoting Tennyson.’
Mary Ann was shaken until she noticed that the landlady was smiling. ‘You get used to my babbling,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘All the others have.’ She walked to the window, where the wind made her kimono flutter like brilliant plumage. ‘The furniture is included. What do you say dear?’
Mary Ann said yes.
‘Good. You’re one of us then. Welcome to 28 Barbary Lane.’
‘Thank you.’
‘You should.’ Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Anne decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.
‘Dear… I have no objection to anything.’

It is the characters that steal the show, Mrs Madrigal, Mary Ann and Michael/Mouse in the main, walking off the page as they do so with flaws and all. Maupin is a master of characterisation and prose each character being multifaceted with good sides and bad, secrets here and there and just regular people of all walks of life. I don’t think in any book I have read outside of the ‘Tales of the City’ series have I found a set of characters that depict all aspects of society, in terms of ages, sexuality, backgrounds, wealth, races, etc, without feeling false of like the author is trying too hard. Maupin covers homophobia, terminal illness, affairs (of people of all ages and sexualities), spies, murder, lies and even cults without any effort or feeling like he is trying to make a shocking statement. There is also a short sharp episodic feel to the book, no surprise as originally it was serialised in a San Francisco paper, that makes it almost unputdownable; you find yourself saying ‘just one more, oh go on another one’ as you go along.

For me at fifteen, and still at thirty if I am honest, what Maupin says to me is that these are characters who are all trying to figure themselves out and so you can too at the same time. As the series goes on, and the more you return to it, all these characters feel like friends. Here I have to admit I wanted to – okay I still do a bit – take the place of Mouse when I was fifteen and have best friends like Mary Ann Singleton and Mona and live in one of Mrs Madrigal’s apartments. In that teenage phase we all have, I think, where I used to save up 20p a week to runaway it was Barbary Lane that I was aiming for. I owe a huge thanks to Armistead Maupin for not only for making me love reading and providing me with escape in my younger years but for also making me realise it was okay to be a bit different from everyone else, that it didn’t matter – or that it wouldn’t matter to those people who really cared about me – and that I would find my way in life okay. It was books like this one and how it reached out to me, way back when in my teens, and made me want to start something like The Green Carnation Prize so other people could find books like this as well, be they a teenager or adult.

Anyway, I have gone off on a tangent, as you can see ‘Tales of the City’ is a book that means a huge amount to me. It is a book, for me, which epitomises what reading is all about, exploring worlds we don’t know and with characters walk off the page and we befriend from all walks of life. It’s one that is a joy to discover for the first time, which I hope some of you have done or will do, and even more of a joy to return to time and time again – and it never seems to age. I cannot recommend, or love this book, enough.

Who else is a fan of ‘Tales of the City’ and the series? Who also loved the TV show, why can’t they do the whole lot? Who has returned to it again and again? Who has tried it for the first time and what did you make of it?


Filed under Armistead Maupin, Books of 2013, Review, Transworld Publishing

24 responses to “Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

  1. the kindle version of Tales of the City is on sale today for folks in the USA – $2.99! enough said – i’m getting myself a copy.

  2. cbjamess

    I’ve commented about this book before. I’m glad to hear you liked the book again this time around as much as you did the first time.

    I’ve moved across the bay to Vallejo, but should you ever make it to San Francisco, I’d be happy to give you a guided “Tales of the City” tour. The city has change greatly since the 1970’s, but there’s still enough of those days left to make for a happy day of wondering.

    I’ll even treat you to lunch at Sam Wo’s which is still there, though Edsel Ford Fong, who was a real person, is no longer.

  3. David

    You might remember I won a set of the books via your blog last year, Simon, and I still haven’t read them (naughty me), but your enthusiasm is making me want to rectify that very soon.
    As for the TV version, I absolutely loved the first series, but I didn’t like the second one (‘More Tales…’) at all.

  4. I’m your exact opposite, I have a set of books that I reread periodically… rather than losing their charm I find that they indulge my nostalgia and transport me back to the time of the first reading!
    D x

  5. I read this for the first time year before last and just thought it was wonderfully fun. It felt like the best gossip column ever, and I wanted to keep reading. I still haven’t picked up the other books but definitely need to.

  6. Laura Caldwell

    I tried it and just couldn’t get into it. Oh well. Just not my style, I guess.

  7. And your review has inspired me to re-read this special book (and probably series) as well! I’m sure I won’t be alone.

  8. rosemarykaye

    I absolutely love these books, which I’ve reread several times – and as coincidence would have it, my daughter and I are currently watching (or for me, re-watching) the TV series courtesy of LoveFilm. Daughter is 14, so has no first hand knowledge of that time, – and she loves it too. Laura Linney will always be Mary Ann for me, just as Olivia Dukakis is so perfect as Mrs Madrigal that I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Radio 4 serialised the first book recently – it as good, but somehow it didn’t seem right to hear it with new actors playing the parts.

    One of my re-readings took place on holiday with a friend in Italy. When I’d finished, I lent her the book – she (who prides herself on ‘open-mindness’) read the first few chapters, tossed the book back at me, and said ‘it’s just an excuse to write about gay sex’ – I was so shocked, not only by her unexpected reaction, but also by how she could reduce such a marvellous book to the idea that it was ‘just about sex’ of any kind – it has the most wonderfully developed characters, and as you say, is primarily a homage to San Francisco – which I was lucky enough to visit a few times in the early 1980s, and to which I would have moved at the drop of a hat if I’d had the chance. (The friend, by the way, has been an ex-friend for some years now!)

    I believe that a chance meeting with Armistead Maupin at a dinner party led Alexander McCall Smith to write the Scotland Street books, which were of course also initially published as weekly episodes in the Scotsman.

    Thanks Simon for bringing these fantastic books to the attention of a new generation of readers.

  9. I can’t believe I haven’t reread this one since moving here, but there you go. I would have joined you, Simon, but you can blame CB (above) for tempting me with his TBR Double Dog Dare. But at least you have inspired me to get a copy once April rolls around, especially as I’ve never read the later volumes.

    A great non-fiction companion to Maupin’s Tales would be Season of the Witch, which explores the darker side of life in SF from the late 60s to early 80s. I highly recommend it.

  10. rosemarykaye

    I’ve never heard of Season of the Witch – sounds very interesting, thanks for that.

  11. I should point out that it’s nothing to do with the Nicolas Cage supernatural thriller of the same name. 🙂

    The book, by David Talbot, came out last year: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12352452-season-of-the-witch

  12. You can purchase Maupin’s books from his website, he’ll even sign them… and if you’re lucky, include some of Mrs. Madrigal’s rolling papers too.

    Do check out Michael Tolliver Lives and Mary Ann in Autumn – love them.

  13. Simon, I have fond memories of reading this series in the 80s and then, two years ago when I read Mary Ann in Autumn, I was totally delighted to be back with these characters.

  14. I love this series so much I can’t even begin to explain. I was a bit sad with the last one-of course still loved it but it wasn’t where I wanted all of the characters’ trajectories to end.

    The Laura Linney miniseries is good fun also.

  15. This is an author who I keep meaning to read but somehow never got around to putting him on my wish list Your review prompted me to change that. i went to San Fransisco on my honeymoon and since this year marks the 30th anniversary it feels the right time to rekindle memories of the city

  16. According to Armistead Maupin’s Facebook page, his novels are recommended as part of treatment for depression. For me they have a human warmth which inspires optimism. I travelled to San Francisco and met Mr Maupin: he’s a remarkable person. He commented on my blog after I wrote a couple of articles about the Tales series and I’m honoured that he might have considered my suggestion for his next novel. The Days of Anna Madrigal is due in autumn.

    I’ve read the books several times, and they really do appreciate with age. Of the three mini- series, the first is the best, being a miracle in itself: funding was refused in the States because the positive portrayal of gay people offended religious right wing media moguls. Backing came from Channel Four in the UK, but by the third series, Showtime took over as production finally ran out of steam. Shows like Queer as Folk were stealing the spotlight and Tales of the City faded from view.

    There’s a stage musical complete with a soundtrack by Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and a new novel to look forward to, and check out my articles here http://thevibes.me/tales-of-the-city/

  17. Roger Park

    Hi Simon,

    I certainly share your love of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  I thought you might enjoy these nine photographs I took of Macondray Lane in 2007.  Macondray Lane in San Francisco is the street upon which Barbary Lane is based.  It’s very city-like at either end but rather magical in the middle when the city is left behind and one feels like one is about to join Mrs. Madrigal!



  18. Claire

    I read these books as a teen, and have reread them several times in the 20 yrs since. They inspired me to go on holiday to San Francisco; it really is a vibrant and beautiful city! I work in a large book shop and am used to meeting authors, but when Armistead Maupin did a signing here in London I had to go and see him!

  19. I’ve read them all about half a dozen times & watched the tv versions twice – also enjoyed the radio adaptation that’s just aired in the UK.
    My first trip abroad on my own was to San Francisco after reading this – I’ve been back 4 times and if I were an American citizen, I’d move there in a heartbeat.
    I love that Armistead Maupin is now revisiting these characters, decades later. They are old friends as many readers feel.

  20. I have re-read one or two novels which are very special to me, but the Tales books are the only ones I have returned to time and again [Sure of You especially] and I doubt that I will ever tire of them. Like you, all that remains for me now is to actually go there!

  21. Congratulations! Savidge Reads is currently featuring on Armistead Maupin’s Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Armistead-Maupin/14917197109

  22. When Mary Ann in Autumn came out, I re-read all the prior books before reading that one, and found them to still be a total delight. I enjoyed them as much now as when I first read Tales of the City day by day in the newspaper, when it was serialized that way. The stage musical that Mark mentions was quite wonderful, too.

  23. Ian

    I love the whole “Tales” series of books including the latest ones. I have re-read them time and again. Currently I’m in the process of purging my bookshelves of books I’ll never read/need again, but I just cannot part with my Tales books (might consider e-versions of them though). Of the TV series, I loved the 1st one, was disappointed in the subsequent ones because the original Mouse actor was replaced, but we did get to see the beginning of careers for Laura Linney, William (Billy) Campbell, Paul Gross, Thomas Gibson, and the work of the lovely Olympia Dukakis.

  24. Pingback: The Days of Anna Madrigal – Armistead Maupin | Savidge Reads

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