Friday, 24 July 2015

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When I was pregnant with my first child, my uncle handed me a copy of Tales of the City. “Perfect when you can’t concentrate for long,” he said. He was right. It was also the beginning of a love affair that has lasted over twenty years.

This week I have had the pleasure and the pain of listening to the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Significant Others (the 5th volume of the series) by day, while reading the 9th and apparently final volume, The Days of Anna Madrigal, by night.

Tales of the City is the granddaddy the modern serial novel, beginning life as a weekly column in the San Francisco Examiner. Like Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street or Todd Babiak’s The Book of Stanley, it brings together an ensemble of eccentric characters, one of which is the city in which it is set.

If you haven’t read any Tales before, this is not the place to start. You need to go back to the beginning, climb the wooden steps to 28 Barbary Lane in 1976, meet the young Mrs Madrigal as, one by one, she gathers her ‘logical family’ around her. As Brian tells his new wife, “It makes more sense if you’ve lived it”

It is, however, a fitting swansong for the series. Anna Madrigal, now 92, is determined she will “leave like a lady.” But first she has some unfinished business. While Michael, Shawna, Ben and Jake make their way to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada (“a Fellini carnival on Mars,” as Michael dubs it), she travels with Brian and Wren back to the town of Winnemucca and the Blue Moon whorehouse where it all began.

Male, female, gay, straight, transsexual – Anna Madrigal loves all her children. Her reflections on Michael (“In no time at all an entire orchestra of gender traits were at Michael’s command and he took joy in the mix.”) would serve equally as a metaphor for the whole tolerant, quirky, creative community that surrounds her.

For forty years, Maupin has charted the history of the San Francisco gay community, from the hedonistic beginnings of the Gay Pride movement in the 70s, through the first wave of AIDS deaths in the 80s, to survival into a middle age that neither Maupin nor his creation, Michael Tolliver, expected to have. Now in his sixties, Michael is embracing, a little reluctantly and from the perspective of a slightly bemused uncle, a new decade – financially impoverished, social media savvy – but in its own way, as bravely experimental as the first.

As this story closes, there are hints that the fourth generation of this 'logical family' is on its way. But it seems that Maupin is leaving it to someone else to write their story. He and Michael are bowing out.

In many ways, the Tales are novels of manners. This book, like the previous ones, is sprinkled with pop-culture references (Game of Thrones, True Blood...) that will no doubt baffle future generations of readers. Before long, the world Maupin describes will seem as outmoded as Jane Austen’s.

His characters, though, will live on, as vivid and loveable as ever. Anna Madrigal, Michael Tolliver: we salute you.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tales of the City vols 1-8, 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan.

Avoid if you don’t like: Serial novels with ensemble casts and negligible plots, casual references to gay sex and drug use.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of Arabian Mocha, “the sinsemilla of coffees."

Genre: LGBT fiction, Humour

Available from Amazon

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