A celebration of life
Armistead Maupin writes a love letter to his beloved San Francisco.
AFTER an absence of 18 years, author Armistead Maupin revived his six-volume, San Francisco-set Tales Of The City series in 2007 with Michael Tolliver Lives. Maupin followed this novel up with Mary-Ann In Autumn in 2010.
The third instalment in the revived Tales series focuses on another well-loved and central character, the former landlady of No. 28 Barbary Lane, Anna Madrigal.
Despite being one of the central characters in the series – as landlady to a group of 20somethings trying to find love, their place in the world and their understanding of the meaning of life – it is only now that Anna Madrigal has been granted a novel of her own.
The last time Anna made a significant appearance was in 1989’s Sure Of You. In the last two novels, she is given a Godot-like presence: her name is mentioned, her whereabouts talked about and her health discussed (she suffered a mild stroke in Michael Tolliver Lives), but the grand dame never made an actual appearance.
As The Days Of Anna Madrigal opens, readers new and old alike are introduced to the benevolent, quirky and mysterious Anna.
As is typical with a Maupin story, the novel starts off slowly, with the author describing in almost minute detail the change of weather from late summer to early autumn, and the chills that Anna can feel in her bones. However, by the third chapter, the pace starts to pick up, and the novel becomes extremely engaging.
Despite the advancement of her age, Anna’s mind remains as sharp and alert as ever, though her body is becoming frail and working against her. To ensure that nothing drastic happens to her, Anna lives with a housemate, Jake.
Perhaps it is the passing of the baton from a worldly individual to a young explorer just starting the journey, but the pairing of Anna and Jake can be seen as Maupin’s take on the transgender issue, and transgenders’ position in sexual and social hierarchy.
For those who don’t know, Anna was born a male (and has the distinction of being one of literature and popular culture’s first transgendered characters), while Jake, almost six decades younger than Anna, was born a female. Both went through the (literal) change at different points in time, but the outcome remains the same: just how accepted are transgendered people not only in society in general, but within gay circles themselves?
While it is admittedly a tad confusing to casual observers, Maupin does handle this issue with grace, without being overly preachy about accepting transgendered people.
Anna is now 92, and even at this advanced age, the former landlady has one last secret, which serves as the novel’s plot.
Some 30 years ago, it was revealed that the name Anna Madrigal was an anagram for “a man and a girl”. However, Maupin now makes it clear early on that there is more to Anna’s name than she had originally let on.
To illustrate this, Maupin sheds more light onto Anna’s past, going as far back as the days before Anna was born and to the time when Anna was actually Andy. This is as much information that Maupin has actually given on any of his characters.
Although it is her name in the title, The Days Of Anna Madrigal is not entirely devoted to Anna. The novel also explores the lives of other characters: the womaniser and former husband of Mary-Ann Singleton, Brian Hawkins’s nuptials to Wren Douglas (she made a cameo appearance in 1986’s Babycakes); Michael Tolliver’s eight-year marriage to his much younger husband, Ben; and Brian and Mary-Ann’s adopted daughter, Shawna’s desire to have a baby.
While Brian and Wren’s involvement in making Anna’s final request come true, and Michael and Ben facing old age together (and the possible demise of Michael; he was declared HIV positive when Maupin rebooted the series in 2007) are handled with care, Shawna’s desire to have a baby seems a tad crudely expressed. The way in which Shawna decides just who should impregnate her, and her final decision, seem a bit too fast and unrealistic, which brings the novel down.
Although The Days Of Anna Madrigal may lack a substantial plot of any kind, the fact that, like its predecessors, the novel is a social commentary on life in America in the new millennium makes it more than interesting enough.
Making peace with one’s past, old age, death, open marriages, single parenting by choice, sexual hierarchies, and the power of friendship are, in Maupin’s typical deadpan and in-your-face manner, explored via dialogue and through the characters’ thoughts. The dialogue between characters is pure Maupin: sharp, clear and utterly witty, instantly drawing the reader into the novel.
As a standalone novel, The Days Of Anna Madrigal has all the ingredients for a good, laid-back read: it does not pretend to be deep or pretentious, it does not offer any earth-shattering solutions to the world’s ills, and it does not force readers to instantly like or root for the titular character, who remains as ethereal and mysterious as when her creator first introduced her in the first Tales novel.
It is merely a novel about a woman (who was born a male) trying to make peace with one aspect of her past before time literally runs out for her.
However, for those who have read the Tales series, The Days Of Anna Madrigal is more than about just the protagonist: it is about watching a city and its population changing with the onset of every new decade that brings with it new fears, ideologies and attitudes.
Most of all, The Days Of Anna Madrigal is about celebrating life, with all the ups and downs that comes with living. Maupin has not only written a love letter to his beloved adopted hometown of San Francisco, he has also written an open letter to the world about celebrating life.