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.’
‘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?