Here’s that second belated book review…
I finished the year out by revisiting my favorite fictional friends on Barbary Lane. The fourth book in his San Franciscan saga, Armistead Maupin’s Babycakes is markedly different from its predecessors. For one thing, the action moves far beyond that lovely city on the bay. For another, the giddy hedonism of the previous volumes has given way to an uncomfortable new normal. It’s the 1980s now, and none of Mrs. Madrigal’s “children” are quite the same.
The focus is noticeably narrower this time. One plot follows Mary Ann and Brian, now married, as they face the multiple complications that come with preparing for a child: career choices, reproductive issues, and a distracting new tenant on Barbary Lane. The other plot follows Michael as he journeys to England, attempting to clear his head and find his center after the death of his lover, Dr. John Fielding. Maupin reserves most of his typical campy mystery for Michael’s story, to varying results. His trademark coincidences are fewer and less clever this time out.
Nevertheless, Michael’s story proves to be more enjoyable. Maupin puts Mary Ann through her paces, and leads her to some surprising choices, which left me feeling a little betrayed. After all this time in San Francisco, has Mary Ann finally stooped to the level of scheming and deceit that so shocked her when she arrived? Taking your point-of-view character down that road is a risky choice. There’s a happy resolution to their troubles, but it comes with Maupin’s most glaring deus ex machina yet. As for Michael’s tale, it’s not as good as those that have come before, but his acquaintance with a brash gay youth, his reminisces of his own younger days on holiday in the UK, and his long overdue reunion with Mona hit all the right notes.
It’s not that I found Babycakes to be disappointing. It was just an unexpected change of pace from an author whom I had previously found so reliably entertaining. His characters remain brilliant, lively creations, and they’ll keep me coming back throughout 2011 to finish the saga.