Babycakes – Armistead Maupin

If you haven’t read any of the Tales of the City series then could you leave this post, turn your computer off and run to the nearest bookshop, buy it, curl up with it and then come back when you are sorry that you have missed such utter joys until this day. Seriously, jog on, I won’t speak to you until you have. If you are one of those people who is clearly very naughty and is reading on, or if you have read them and you are wishing I would just get on with it, let me tell you that I think the Tales of the City books are not only my very favourite series but some of my very favourite books.

Returning to them is always an absolute joy, I feel I have lived with these characters on 28 Barbary Lane for all my life – impossible I know but that is how much they have meant to me since way back when and how real they have become in my mind. Knowing that there was a new one coming out, The Days of Anna Madrigal, I decided to re-read them all again after the new year only I realised that I always seem to re-read the first three (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City) and then stop so knowing them inside and out (in a gorgeous and familiar way) I decided to start with book four in the series Babycakes (possibly after watching the first three’s adaptations on DVD first, don’t judge me they are almost as good as the first), and once again was lost in that familiar world of Mouse, Mary Ann and Mrs Madrigal once again. Note: Now if you haven’t read this series and still haven’t gone, right this minute, to buy them all this is your last chance as being the fourth in the series I may have to give some things away. You’ve been warned.

Black Swan Books, 1984 (2010 edition), paperback, 320 pages, taken from my own shelves

Babycakes opens with none other than The Queen as she arrives in San Francisco on a trip around America. The city is abuzz with the news and Mary Ann Singleton, now a TV reporter, is out in her very best hat (only befitting if you are even talking about The Queen on the telly, let alone being in her company) and trying to get a big story from it all. Her husband Brian is still waiting in a restaurant and trying to deal with career focused Mary Ann when really what he wants is a pregnant Mary Ann who he will happily become a house husband to. Michael ‘Mouse’ is also feeling rather lost and grieving since the death of his lover Jon. While all of The Castro is focused on the arrival of ‘another’ Queen in town, they are avoiding the fact that HIV and Aids are becoming a big problem in the city. Michael however knows about it all too well and feels the need to escape which, with the help of Mrs Madrigal and a runaway seaman, he does and flies to London where he finds a familiar face in a very unfamiliar world, though this familiar face doesn’t want to be discovered…

What I loved about Babycakes, and what I invariably love about every Tales of the City and Armistead Maupin book, is how on first glances these are a series of charming tales about a whole host of wonderful, diverse and colourful characters. Yet they also cleverly look at the much darker side of life and somehow make it more digestible without being any the less thought provoking or emotional. In Babycakes there are four main themes going on in the background; the first is subject of men who really want to be dads and stay at home husbands (which people still find an unusual set up), racism, grief and the arrival of HIV and Aids onto the gay scene in the early 1980’s.

The other Michael’s face registered gratitude, then confusion, then something akin to discomfort. Michael knew what he was wondering. ‘I don’t have it,’ he added. I am just a volunteer who answers the phones.’
A long silence followed. When the waiter finally spoke, his voice was much more subdued. ‘My ex-lover’s lover died of it last month.’
An expression of sympathy seemed somehow inappropriate, so Michael merely nodded.
‘It really scares me,’ said the waiter. ‘I’ve given up Folsom Street completely. I only go to the sweater bars now.’
Michael would have told him that the disease was no respecter of cashmere, but his nerves were too shot for another counselling session. He had already spent five hours talking to people who had been rejected by their lovers, evicted by their landlords, and refused admission to local hospitals. Just for tonight, he wanted to forget.’

These moments in Babycakes really hit home, probably because of all the lighter and more quirky stories around them, which I think Maupin does brilliantly as they stand out all the darker. They are also done with great sensitivity and it is this duality, and was also done marvellously when dealing with the Jonestown Massacre in Further Tales of the City, which makes the series so important as well as being so compelling to read. I can’t really say any more than that, I just really love them.

Since reading Babycakes, just before I started Significant Others, I discovered that The Days of Anna Madrigal will be the finale to the whole series. I won’t lie, having loved these books since I was a teenager (they were like a godsend to show there were more diverse/different people out there in the world) my stomach almost dropped out with horror. So I have decided that I will save the fifth to eighth book re-reads until after I have read the finale and have them to go back to afterwards. I have a feeling there will be tears for all sorts of reasons. I wonder if when I meet Armistead next week (for You Wrote The Book, if any of you have questions let me know) I could slip him a £5 note to get him to write just a few more? Ha!

For a slightly less rambling and emotional response to Babycakes visit A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook. Who else has read the Tales of the City series, be they in your formative years or not, and which has been your favourite along the way? Can you believe that it is really coming to an end? If you haven’t read them yet, then what on earth are you still doing reading this post? Get on with your bothers and down to a bookshop/library right this minute!

8 Comments

Filed under Armistead Maupin, Black Swan Books, Books of 2014, Review, Transworld Publishing

8 responses to “Babycakes – Armistead Maupin

  1. I was given a copy of Tales of the City as a gift when I headed off to San Francisco on a three month trip a mere 17 years ago. I read it there and was smitten and have now finished the series (apart from The Last Days..). Tales were always my ‘treat’ books, I would save them for when I had read something long or arduous and I always made sure I had 2 – 3 clear days with nothing else to do but luxuriate in the warmth and charm of that world. Maupin has a wonderful way of melding brevity and fun with the deeper issues of life and his characters, even the less prominent ones, are always engaging.

  2. I love the TOTC series. They’re the kind of books you can turn to if you fancy visiting old friends when your own are absent. Armistead Maupin has said that the series was coming to an end before and, I believe, refused at first to consider Michael Tolliver Lives as the seventh in the series so we can but hope. I can vouch for the wonderfulness of The Days of Anna Madrigal and have reviewed it on my blog if you’re interested. Apologies for the self publicity, there!

  3. Col

    Alarm duly set to get up and go bookshop first thing tomorrow!

  4. HIgh time I reread them, I think, all the better to have them fresh in mind for the finale!

  5. rosemarykaye

    I love the books and I also loved the TV series – Laura Linney will forever be Mary Ann for me, just as there could be no other Mrs Madrigal but Olympia Dukakis.

    I am over the moon with joy to have a ticket for Armistead’s reading in Edinburgh next week – pure serendipity, as I went to Waterstones to find a study guide for my daughter, and they had just started advertising the event (now not only sold out but moved to a larger venue to satisfy demand.)

    I once lent Tales of the City to a friend (whose son, incidentally, is gay.) She threw it back at me after reading half, saying ‘it’s just about gay sex’. I was appalled. Maybe I am just naive, but to me the books are about people, life, love, the city. It’s a bit like saying the novels of Barbara Pym (another one of my all time favourite writers) are ‘just about the church’.

    So looking forward to reading this new novel, and I agree, please don’t let it be the last!

  6. I was going to point out that the series has had at least one finale already, I think there have been two, actually. You might ask about that. I think Maupin will keep coming back to them as long as he lives. He just can’t stay away from Barbary Lane.

    If you’re ever in the Bay Area, give me a call. I know where the “real” Barbary Lane is. Last time I was there, it had gone very upscale as most of the city has, but it’s still a charming ‘street’.

  7. SD

    The first novel I read in the TOTC series was “Significant Others”, long ago when I was in my very early 20s. I quite enjoyed it, and sought out the earlier books in the series. But none of them lived up to SO for me; I enjoyed them for their topicality rather than the quality of the writing. Armistead Maupin is often compared to Charles Dickens, and I think he shares some of Dickens’ weaknesses as well as strengths as a writer. Both veer towards the sentimental at times and, I think, rely too much on co-incidence which can make their plots feel contrived. But this year I saw a book on the library shelf called “Michael Tolliver Lives”, and for a moment it was really as if I had heard news of someone I had known long ago. To me, the strength of TOTC is its authenticity. Armistead (probably inadvertently at first) created a powerful record of a significant part of history as it unrolled. Without wishing to sound patronising, it’s hard to explain to people who don’t remember the 1980s and early 90s just how moving those three words are: “Michael Tolliver Lives”.

  8. I loved AM’s Tales of the City series, but it must be years (if not decades) since I last read one. Thanks for reminding me how delightful they are.

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