Of all of the icons of contemporary gay culture, few figures remain as poised and revered as celebrated author Armistead Maupin, and fewer still retain the timeless affection that is bestowed upon Tales of the City, Maupin's groundbreaking, sprawling series of books first published as a newspaper serial in 1974.
Mary Ann in Autumn, the eighth novel in the long running saga, is a welcome return to form after a near 20 year hiatus was resurrected in 2007 with the eagerly awaited Michael Tolliver Lives. Return to form, however, may be a little inaccurate, as Maupin is – extraordinarily - rarely off it in the first place.
The latest chapter in the eccentric soap opera sees the beloved Mary Ann Singleton, now a gracefully ageing 57 year-old, return to San Francisco with important news for Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, who is now cosily loved up with his charming husband Ben and in business with the adorable and wickedly named trans-gendered gardener Jake Greenleaf. The happy domestic set up is only crowned by the addition of Roman, the epileptic dog.
Taking refuge in the happy-couples backyard cottage, Mary Ann attempts to rebuild her life and return to the simpler lifestyle she abandoned when she up and left for New York to pursue a dubious short lived affair with fame and celebrity. Meanwhile, her estranged daughter, popular outspoken sex-blogger Shawna, becomes tangled up in the mysterious life of a homeless woman whose fate will ultimately lead to some astonishing revelations. Overseeing proceedings within the new age, barking bohemia is, of course, the legendary Anna Madrigal, landlady and Buddha-esque wise woman of 28 Barbary Lane.
With Mary Ann in Autumn, Maupin has not only kept up with the series’ consistent line of lightweight humour balanced with poignant observation, but also managed to reflect a delicate and subtle passing of time. The narrative still weaves effortlessly in and out of the numerous characters’ stories, and the charming details as characters pass each other unknowingly in and out of each others' lives before gradually being pulled closer and closer throughout the novel is handled with such deft aplomb that at no point are you ever in doubt that you are in the hands of a true master story-teller.
The tale is also so bang up to date with Mary Ann’s induction to Facebook and other, weirdly current pop-culture references, that this latest addition feels so vital and relevant to now. And while the drama propels the story along, it is the quieter dialogues and glimpses into the internal narratives of our leads that really bring home the true theme of loss and regret, and the overwhelming feeling that it’s never too late to change anything.
As ever, Maupin remains faithful not only to his art but to his readers and, more importantly, to the characters he created and so obviously adores, instilling in all of them their own individual charms and neurosis and always imbuing them with a quiet dignity that is all too rare in modern fiction. We can only hope that Mouse, Mary Ann and Anna grace us with their presence again very soon.