Thursday, January 23, 2014
One Final Tale of the City
My copy of The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin arrived Tuesday, and I have already finished it. (For a perceptive and appreciative review, see Laura Miller's). My own critique, in sum: Too short.
No, no; I don't really mean that. It's just that this book concludes the third trilogy in the series that began with Tales of the City, and almost inevitably, ends the series as a whole. This final trilogy is the most shot-through with melancholy underlying the humor of the three--all of our friends from 28 Barbary Lane demonstrably older, mortality knocking at several doors through each of the three books, and yet is also a celebration of life while it goes on. Michael Tolliver Lives begins the trilogy in an affirming way--Michael, well, lives, despite AIDS; former landlady Mrs. Madrigal survives a close call with death, and Mary Ann Singleton (now married, wealthy and bored in Connecticut) returns briefly to her old friends whom she had terribly wounded by her departure in Sure of You, the rather dark ending of the second trilogy--in which the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane are scattered, and Mary Ann herself, from having been our viewpoint character, becomes startlingly, but credibly, unsympathetic.
In Mary Ann in Autumn, Maupin continued Mary Ann's return journey to her friends. It closed a circle with the first volume, and while Mary Ann's innocence is lost, we see that her original self is not. She's glossier and more heavily varnished than she once was, but she has some of that scraped off her in the course of the novel, in part because of her need for her friends, but also by revisiting one of the darker facets of the very first novel. Mary Ann is, by the end of the book, re-integrated into the "logical family" of Mrs. madrigal, although her ex-husband Brian Hawkins, so vital a presence in Michael Tolliver Lives, is marginalized to a cameo.
It's Mary Ann whose appearances in Days amount to a cameo, and Brian's story that moves forward, re-uniting him with an old "almost lover", and with Mrs. Madrigal--whose story moves back and forth in time. At 92, Anna is making up her final accounts with the man she once was, and the conflicted boy Andy Ramsay had been even earlier.
It's tender, funny, and, in places, sad. This book belongs to the core characters who have populated the series, though the younger characters are well used, especially Shawna, Brian's adopted daughter. The fact that the action is set largely outside of San Francisco, that Michael's gardening business is sputtering, and that all of our friends are showing their age, adds a touch of nostalgia to this closing volume of the third trilogy. It's an elegy for the San Francisco that made Anna Madrigal and her "logical family" possible, while noting the the City ain't what it used to be--as witness 28 Barbary Lane itself, now owned by "dot commers" who have "made it look like a five-star B and B."
Even the most wonderful party must, at some point, come to an end.