This novel is another late edition to Maupin’s Tales of the City. I read it a bit for old times’ sake and a bit because I really liked his last novel, Michael Tolliver Lives. I thought this one might be fun too.
Mary Ann in Autumn
Armisted Maupin’s latest novel, Mary Ann in Autumn (304 pages, Harper, $25.99), tells the story of an older Mary Ann, now separated from her wealthy husband, who returns to San Francisco to be with her old friends as she faces a serious operation for ovarian cancer. Maupin hauls out all the old characters from Tales of the City. Michael Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, Shawna and others are back, and, as we discovered in Michael Tolliver Lives, they have a lot of life in them yet.
This volume includes a bit more of the lurid side of Tales of the City. The pedophile Norman is back, with a vengeance, and Mary Ann has to confront some of the gloomier hosts of her past. For me this feature of the novel creaked just a bit—it seemed almost quaint that Maupin would try to resurrect all that ghoulishness. But then he always had quite a light touch with it, and he does here too.
What’s new is a deeper interest in transsexuality. That was always there, of course, with Anna Madrigal as an early example of M to F transition. Well, she is now serving as mentor and house-mother to a young F to M trans character named Jake. Jake’s struggle to realize his new male identity, and his confusion when he is actually taken as a man, a gay man, by a visiting Mormon crusader, makes an engaging side plot. And of course Jake’s desire for a hysterectomy can be played against Mary Ann’s dread of one, and Maupin does play them against each other with good effect.
I looked on Amazon.com to see what readers are saying, and they seemed to be thrilled at this resurrection of the characters and the prospect of even more novels in the series. I can’t say that I share this enthusiasm. I’d like to see Maupin devote his considerable talents to writing novels that take us beyond this narrow and circumscribed world of Michael Tolliver and his friends. I am as happy as the next reader to see Michael as a slightly overweight and happily married sixty-year-old. But the petty difficulties that beset Michael’s relationship with the much younger, and very charming, Ben are only mildly interesting.
There is a terribly strong valedictory feeling about this novel, and a sense that nothing is really new but only reworking of things that have already happened. The San Francisco, moreover, that Maupin’s characters seem bent on rediscovering is not really the city as it exists in the twenty-first century. I think Maupin could do more to make the contemporary city come alive.
Suddenly I feel like I am sounding cranky about this novel, and I don’t mean to be. I quite liked it, and I know I would read another in the series should it be published. I also feel that we have had more than enough of these characters, and I would encourage this wonderful writer to try something else as he reaches the peak of his career.
Mary Ann in Autumn is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.