In "Mary Ann in Autumn," Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City novel in three years, Mary Ann Singleton returns to San Francisco looking for a hint of homecoming. Maupin reads Tuesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store.
Armistead Maupin has arrived at the perfect title for his first “Tales of the City” novel in three years: “Mary Ann in Autumn.”
In Maupin’s new book (Harper, 287 pp., $25.99), the aging heroine of this resilient and enjoyable series, 57-year-old Mary Ann Singleton (so wonderfully played by Laura Linney in the television version), is not in the best of health as she returns to San Francisco for the first time in a couple of decades.
She’s left her unfaithful husband, she’s facing an operation for uterine cancer (the doctor offers an appendectomy as a freebie), and she’s desperately looking for a hint of homecoming as she climbs the weathered steps that intersect with her lost Barbary Lane wonderland.
“The past doesn’t catch up with us,” she thinks. “It escapes from us.”
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Her old pal, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, has wed Ben, a younger man who is on the make much of the time. As Proposition 8 threatens the legality of their union and they struggle with an open relationship, they register their marriage for a third time at City Hall.
Michael’s landlady, Anna Madrigal, now in her late 80s, has become a kind of “tranmother” to Michael’s transgendered gardener assistant, Jake. When Jake is not delivering lectures on tolerance to Jonah, a Mormon boy who favors Proposition 8, he’s falling for the kid — who finds himself both responding and trying to rationalize his feelings.
An element of suspense is introduced early on, as some chapters end with cliffhangers that involve horror-movie behavior and the kinds of outrageous plot twists that mix fact and fiction. (The Jonestown Kool-Aid Massacre, which played a part in the early “Tales,” is briefly mentioned.)
Like Mary Ann, Maupin sometimes seems susceptible to exaggerating circumstances and inventing worse conditions.
“Stop horribilizing, Mary Ann,” says a friend. “It will do you no good.”
Most of the book deals less hysterically with compromise (Jake and Jonah find themselves trying to meet halfway), adjusting to the inevitability of change (the once- colorful Bay waterfront now seems corny to some) and getting old (Anna may have a shrinking body but she’s still “warm and self-mocking and completely present”).
As she prepares to “lose a whole smorgasbord of organs,” Mary Ann reflects on the circumstances that have brought her back to the Bay Area, where she once had a television show, “Mary Ann in the Morning,” that played well in California but fizzled in New York.
Sitting in a chair with her laptop, looking out over the hillside lights and sipping peppermint tea, she logs onto Facebook and posts her emotional status report: “Wondering if life is going to get better.”