When Mary Ann Singleton, a quiet mousy secretary from Cleveland Ohio, turned up in San Francisco back in 1976 in Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’, she became a virtual ‘friend’ to readers all over the world. Mary Ann was the ultra-straight sensible outsider observing the wild, crazy, exotic (and erotic) behaviour of those around her. Not since Dorothy observed to Toto the dog in ‘The Wizard of Oz that ‘We’re a long way from Kansas’ was someone such a fish out of water. Mary Ann loved the ‘city’, called her mother and told her she wasn’t coming home. Over the course of six books Mary Ann and her fellow housemates and landlady at the house on Barbary Lane became a part of the lives of the readers of Maupin’s wonderful books. Then at the end of the series, Maupin sent Mary Ann away into exile, off to New York to become a TV presenter and to subsequently marry a dull but wealthy company Chief Executive. Back in San Francisco her ex-husband Brian and their adopted daughter Shawna got on with their lives but her friends never forgot her. Mary Ann in Autumn is set more than twenty years after Mary Ann left the city and is the second of Maupin’s 21st Century follow-up novels which reintroduce the characters we used to know and love and brings their stories up to date.
Mary Ann popped up briefly in ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’, Maupin’s reflective 7th ‘Tales of the City’ book when she commandeered her husband’s private jet to fly over and see her sick friend Anna Madrigal, but she made little impact on the story. As readers we were reassured that Mary Ann was OK but there weren’t too many details to fill in the intervening years. In ‘Mary Ann in Autumn’ she’s back in San Francisco, fleeing an unhappy marriage after her husband forgot to switch off the Skype and left her to witness him having sex with her therapist. We soon learn that she’s got another reason for returning to the city where she feels safe and loved – she has cancer of the uterus and needs surgery. Feeling lost and alone, she asks Michael if she can come and stay with him and his husband Ben. Ben’s not too keen to share his man with a drama queen who isn’t a ‘queen’ but Michael’s adamant that if Mary Ann needs them, she must come and so she moves into their tiny wooden cabin in the garden.
Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s adopted daughter Shawna has taken a shine to a dirty drug-damaged bag lady who lives rough in a bad part of town. Shawna and her boyfriend Otto (he’s a clown – well he would be) find themselves trying to track down the woman’s history in the hope of identifying some kind of happier past that might compensate for her tragic present. Michael and Ben are struggling a little to get used to having Mary Ann around and Ben’s more than a little jealous of their closeness. Michael’s assistant, transgendered Jake is struggling to understand his attraction for a young Mormon missionary who has come to San Francisco to oppose the laws around gay marriage. And the agelessly elegant Anna Madrigal continues in her role of wise old woman. Old friends Dede and D’Orothea put in a brief appearance helping out with Mary Ann’s recovery but her ex-husband Brian is conspicuous by his absence, off on the road in his Winnebago.
Ben introduces Mary Ann to Facebook and she’s soon discovering that it brings both good and bad – there’s the adoration of fans from long ago and a bunch of disturbing messages from someone who knows too much about a cold night on a cliff-top when Mary Ann’s companion fell to his death. In classic Maupin plotting, he manages to bring all the threads together in a tense and intimidating finale.
It’s unlikely you’d buy this book if you weren’t already a fan of Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ novels but if you are, then it’s the book equivalent of curling up on the sofa with old friends and a glass of wine. At 60 years old, Mary Ann and Michael find their friendship to be as strong as ever and readers will most likely be reassured that old friends can still find each other despite time and distance. There are dark moments for example when Ben and Michael meet up with another gay couple whose age difference is the same as theirs and realise that Ben will most likely one day have to deal with Michael getting old, senile and incontinent. Mind you, at the end of the Tales of the City none of us thought HIV positive Michael would live long enough to worry about such things. The cancer story line is treated with a light touch – perhaps a little TOO light for some readers where cancer and a hysterectomy are treated as no big deal – and there’s a darkly disturbing sub-plot that awakes memories of a long forgotten story of paedophilia that’s cleverly played out. Despite these occasional dark moments, ‘Mary Ann in Autumn’ is a lot more positive, less introspective, and in the style of the original books.
Some characters appear seemingly to just tick a few boxes but the new-generation characters like Ben, Shawna and Jake the gardener are getting fleshed out beautifully and in such a way that readers can already start imagining where Maupin will take them next. Even if he killed off all the old gang, you can’t help thinking Maupin’s found a whole new bunch of people whose stories could be spun out through a few more books. I’ve read nothing to suggest there are more still to come but my plot antennae are twitching and I’m already wondering who he’ll do next – my money’s on Brian coming back in his Winnebago and being the key character in the next one, if there IS another book to follow.
For anyone put off by the very graphic gay sex of ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’, this is a much more manageable and less shocking volume and there’s little that will leave anyone who’s read the previous seven books feeling uncomfortable. There are some ‘educational’ passages about having injections into sensitive areas of the body that may have you raising your eyebrows and thinking “Hmm, I didn’t know they did THAT” but most of the sex is either tame or rather funny. Structurally they chapters are shorter than in the last book though not as short and snappy as the original books and I felt Maupin has found a comfortable mid-ground.
I needed to read ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ to fill in the gaps since the series had ended but with Mary Ann in Autumn I was reading again for the sheer joy of Maupin’s writing. I really do hope that there are more books in the pipeline.
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