The first time Armistead Maupin ended his "Tales of the City" serial — in 1989, with his sixth novel, "Sure of You" — he did it with a departure. Mary Ann Singleton, who had initiated the series by calling her mother in Cleveland to say she was staying in San Francisco, took a network TV job and left the Bay Area for New York.
It was a sad if not unexpected outcome. In the 15 years since Maupin had first started writing about Mary Ann, her friends Michael, Mona, Brian and their irrepressible landlady, Anna Madrigal, a lot had happened: Anita Bryant, the People's Temple, AIDS. Maupin was ready to move on. It was nearly two decades before he returned to these characters, first with the 2007 novel "Michael Tolliver Lives" and then with the follow-up, "Mary Ann in Autumn," in 2010.
What makes "Tales of the City" so resonant is Maupin's ability to draw broad, human lessons from the particularity of his characters' lives. This is why it has struck such a chord for close to 40 years now: adapted into three miniseries and an opera, the source of "Tales"-related San Francisco tours.
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Now, Maupin has chosen to end the series again with "The Days of Anna Madrigal," a work that is less about departure than coming home. Featuring the full complement of "Tales" regulars (with the exception of Mona, who died in the 1984 novel "Babycakes"), the book is an elegy — for San Francisco, for its characters, for a way of life.
"Her days were full of such small surrenders," Maupin writes of Mrs. Madrigal, now 93 and only marginally mobile, "so why make a fuss over them? You could see them as loss, or you could see them as simplification. His daughter Mona would have called this an act of faith, this Zen letting-go of familiar pleasures. Anna chose to think of it as leaving like a lady."
That sense of mortality is in the atmosphere of "The Days of Anna Madrigal," a novel about coming to terms. It follows the standard "Tales" formula of shifting from character to character, although it is not, for the most part, a formulaic book. Rather, Maupin is interested here in aging, in contraction, in what happens as things shut down.
It's true not only of Mrs. Madrigal but also of Michael, who at 62 has enjoyed an extended second act thanks to the AIDS cocktail, and Mary Ann, on the other side of cancer surgery.
"Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal," Michael reflects. "… Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability was a permanent condition that adapted with the times."
We see ourselves in Michael, a gay man who found love when he least expected; his husband, Ben, 22 years younger, is one of the series' most compelling second-generation characters. We see ourselves in Mary Ann, who remains the prodigal, unsure of whether, or to what extent, she has been welcomed back.
Then, of course, there's Mrs. Madrigal, den mother for this tribe of lost souls, who from the living room of her fictional apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane held together their community. Now living in a different apartment, she continues to exert an influence, although she has to settle a few last matters of her own.
Such a settling become part of the narrative of "The Days of Anna Madrigal," as if Maupin couldn't end the series without giving us the full story of the woman at its center all along. This is a tricky decision, since we know so much about her already — that she is a transsexual, raised in Winnemucca in a house of prostitution, someone who has transformed herself in every imaginable way.
Although he has never shifted time frames in his fiction, Maupin interweaves chapters that detail the character's early life in Nevada, and what she had to overcome. This takes a little while to get going; the first flashback chapters feel slightly out of place. So too a late chapter in which Maupin reveals the essential sin with which Mrs. Madrigal has to reckon, a moment that blurs into melodrama.
And yet melodrama is Maupin's stock-in-trade, the essence of an ongoing social novel that began as a daily newspaper serial, with a cliffhanger every 900 words. It's what he does with it that's important, and in "The Days of Anna Madrigal," he is as moving as he has ever been.
I don't want to give away the plot, which is both surprising and at the same time reassuring, as it needs to be. Let's just say he writes with great compassion about growing older and what we do to help one another through.
"It occurred to Michael," Maupin observes, "that this was the great perk of being loved: someone to tell you that it will get easier up ahead. … Even when it might not be true." This, it seems, could be the epigraph for this final "Tales" novel, and the entire series of which it is a part.
Maupin highlights this with his younger characters — not only Ben, but the trans-man Jake Greenleaf, who now looks after Mrs. Madrigal, and Brian and Mary Ann's adopted daughter, Shawna, eager to become a mother herself. But even more, it is the writing, steeped in his experience of getting older, his sense of how life shifts.
Near the end of the book, Mrs. Madrigal describes the migration of the monarch butterfly, begun by one generation and completed by the next. "They have two months," she explains. "That's it. But some part of them must know that they're part of this endless continuum, this … community after death."
It's a vivid metaphor, not just for these characters, but for all of us, writer and reader, an expression of our shared humanity. That was always the point of "Tales of the City," its heartbeat, which makes "The Days of Anna Madrigal" a fitting end.
The Days of Anna Madrigal
Harper: 288 pp., $26.99