Book Review: “Michael Tolliver Lives” and “Mary Ann in Autumn” by Armistead Maupin

Hey, everyone!  Apologies for keeping things dormant lately.  Kickball’s over, the weather’s turning colder (well, with the notable exceptional of this beautiful weekend), and the Yankees…well, that’s better left undiscussed for the moment.  But I have been having some adventures lately, and I’ve also been tearing through some books.  Let’s cover the literary diversions first, shall we?

A few months ago I reviewed Sure of You, the melancholy conclusion to Armistead Maupin’s landmark Tales of the City series.  It was a bittersweet accomplishment.  On the one hand, I’d read through Maupin’s entire San Franciscan saga, which probably totaled over 1,200 pages.  On the other hand, it was over.  Thankfully, Maupin decided four years ago to explore where the remaining veterans of Barbary Lane might find themselves in the 21st century.  In Michael Tolliver Lives and Mary Ann in Autumn, Maupin catches us up on what we’ve missed in the intervening twenty-plus years, introduces us to the next generation of unique Bay Area personalities, and carries the story forward with all his standard hallmarks: coincidences, conspiracies, and comedy.

Michael Tolliver Lives is a departure from the previous Tales books, in that it is told in the first person.  Michael is the star of the show here, as he navigates a new relationship with a younger beau and manages the push-and-pull of caring for the ailing members of biological family in Florida and his “logical” family in San Francisco.  Michael Tolliver Lives is most important for introducing readers to a whole new crop of characters, including Michael’s lover, Ben; Michael’s professional apprentice, Jake Greenleaf; and Brian and Mary Ann’s grown daughter, Shawna, a local literary legend, thanks to her provocative slice-of-San-Franciscan-life blog.  Keeping the story narrowed to Michael’s POV was a swing-and-miss, if you ask me, only because it deprived us of the chance to get inside the minds of new characters and, more importantly, those of the old ones.

Mary Ann in Autumn, however, feels more like the original installment of Tales of the City than other.  After making only a cameo in Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary Ann Singleton returns to San Francisco with little more than her baggage (physical and emotional), just as she did back in 1976.  Facing a double-whammy of life-altering changes, Mary Ann has come back west to fight her battles with friends like Michael and DeDe at her side.  She’s forced to confront the friends, neighbors, and the daughter she left behind.  There’s more to the book than just Mary Ann, though.  Michael worries about the stability of his marriage, Jake encounters a troubled Mormon missionary, and all the original Barbary Lane tenants–including the indefatigable Mrs. Madrigal–find themselves threatened when the last great unsolved mystery of the Tales of the City series comes back into focus.

These two books show that Maupin has a lot of mileage left with these characters, and his San Francisco is still a place with plenty of stories to tell.

~ T

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