Book Review: Tales of the City

Wednesday 24 September 2014 by

Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin, Book, Black Swan, TransworldTales of the City by Armistead Maupin

Published by Black Swan

A naïve young secretary forsakes Cleveland for San Francisco, tumbling headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous – unmistakeably the handiwork of Armistead Maupin.

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It might be unbelievable that it’s taken me this long to read Armistead Maupin, but it’s true. I just never have. But Tales of the City has been recommended countless times so I finally gave in.

Although Mary Ann is the protagonist through which San Francisco is experienced to begin with, she is by no means the star of the show. The story is centred around a place rather than a character – the house on Barbary Lane. Each character wanders in and out of the life of the house, telling a fraction of their story before moving on.

Maupin is famous for these grand, intricate tales of human existence, and this book is perhaps the most famous of them all. The characters themselves, ultimately, are interchangeable, acquaintances you make at work, friends you share everything with for a few years before simply drifting apart. The creation of this starkly realistic world is artful; characters lift themselves of the page by the very nature of their normal-ness. San Francisco simmers in the background, and smells, tastes, and sounds are all familiar, everyday experiences. Maupin captures a unique moment in time (published in the 1970s, it harks back to the pre-mobile phone era where we began to stumble from the ‘swinging’ sixties to a new form of liberalism). There is a sepia taste to the prose, the style of language and behaviours.

Of all the characters you meet, Mona and Mrs Madrigal are my favourites, for their unapologetic attitude to life, yet their underlying vulnerability is comforting in many ways. I would never describe Maupin’s characters as flawed, simply human. There is a refreshing simplicity to the prose, with a distinct quality of honesty.

There is an addictive side to Maupin’s writing – its brevity works in its favour in that it makes you want to pick up the next book as soon as you’re done. A powerful story, without much punch beyond human nature – there are no great dramas, no violence or huge romances or disasters. It’s the nosiness in all of us that we want to look in on these people’s lives and learn more. And this book gives us a glimpse of that.

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