Every now and then one’s reading life, a person discovers a series of books that, simply, makes them happy. Even looking at these books on the shelf can be cause for a smile and reading them again is like hanging out with old friends. The discoveries of these special stories are more valuable because of their rareness and, for this particular reader, they are cherished and loved and sometimes feel more real than people who are actually living.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is one of those series for me. It opens with the story of Mary Ann, a woman from Cleveland who arrives in San Francisco and loves it so much she impulsively move there. She moves into the house of the mysterious Anna Madrigal on Barbary Lane, where a bunch of other interesting characters live, including Michael (Mouse), Mona and Brian among many, many more. The books don’t focus on any one character – the narration shifts between many different stories in what this reviewer calls a “third-person kaleidoscope narrative”. This is a huge part of both the series’ appeal and the skill of Maupin’s storytelling – each of the points of view shown to the reader feels real (with a few minor exceptions, like that of Queen Elizabeth II in Babycakes) and the relationships, loves and heartbreak ring true.
I discovered the series when I was an undergrad on the recommendation of a friend and I have retained my love of the series although the friendship has long faded (does anyone ever has as many friends as one has when one is an undergraduate? Why am I continually referring to myself as “one” in this review?). One of the things I loved most about these books was how they represented gayness. In Tales in the City, being gay was just one part of a character’s personality. It was of bigger or smaller importance depending on the person but it was never anyone’s defining characteristic – they were “a best friend who was gay” rather than “a gay best friend”. This was true to my real-life experience with friends who were gay and, to find out that it was possible to write gayness like this was honestly revelatory for me. Looking at how many facets of the media still struggle with their representation of homosexuality today (Hollywood, I’m looking at you) make me appreciate how truly groundbreaking Tales really was.
The final book in the Tales series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, has been released. I haven’t read it yet because I’m not quite ready to let these characters go. I don’t want to read a new one knowing there will be no more so, to delay the final sad moment, I have collected the entire series so far and read the first six. I’d never read them all in sequence before and it was fascinating to watch the changing fashions and cultural mores from the ‘70s until the late 1980s of Sure of You. The city of San Francisco is a character in these novels and it to changes and develops along with everyone else. After one weekend binge Tales session I also realised that these books are much kinder to their male characters than the female ones (the most appealing female character in the book was, in fact, born a man) but you can’t have everything and I love Mouse enough to make up for it.
If you haven’t, please read these books. They are a delight and a treasure and I love them.