Now Maupin’s fabulous character, the transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, Anna Madrigal, is ninety two and it’s her story that this book focuses on: both in the present day and her 1930s childhood. We follow her on her journey, with former tenant of Barbary Lane Brian Hawkins and his daughter Shawna, into her past when she was a young boy called Andy living with his madam mother in the Blue Moon brothel on a dusty road outside of Winnemucca. Together with Brian’s new wife Wren, they drive to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and the Burning Man festival. The novel also brings us up to date with other familiar characters: Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton. Anna’s mission – to face and make peace with her past before she leaves ‘like a lady’. Anna has always been a mysterious character and we’ve never seen much of her past before. She’s always told her friends that her name is an anagram of ‘a man and a girl’, but here we are told the true and poignant reason she chose her new name.
The Days of Anna Madrigal feels a long way time wise from the beginning of the series set in 1970s San Francisco and Maupin has updated his references accordingly taking account of text messaging, Facebook and Twitter and even references to the Kardashians. This at times felt a little forced, as though the novel was trying too hard to be up to date and that didn’t seem to sit comfortably with the personality of Anna.
When I first discovered the Tales of the City books many years ago I found them zippy and pacey and raced through them as fast as I could, but here the pace is definitely slower, much as Anna Madrigal at ninety two is, but the amount of recapping necessary to remind the reader who the characters are slowed the narrative at little too much at times.
The sections that relate Anna’s past in the brothel, when she was Andy, are the best in the book. Here Maupin’s gift for story telling with an easy relaxed voice comes into its own and I couldn’t help feel that this was where Maupin’s real interest in the story lay and wished there had been more of this. There are some moments of genuine poignancy as we see the young Andy/Anna grappling with the divisions within her and the difficulties that presented. The present day of the story with all its modern references felt out of sync and simply not as impressive and in some ways I would have preferred a more historical aspect to this novel.
The book follows a dual narrative: Anna Madrigal and her search for understanding and forgiveness and the other following Michael Tolliver (grappling with HIV as he comes to the end of his life) and Shawna as she searches for the possibility of having a child, intending to conceive at Burning Man. The two narratives of course come together at the festival which is vividly portrayed: an event Maupin has experienced and therefore the dust, the art and the sense of a brief moment in time were utterly believable. Anna’s story is the main thrust of the book and does provide a satisfying conclusion to the entire series, but the other stories that thread through the narrative simply aren’t as interesting and end without with big moment the build up seems to suggest. In many ways this is true of the whole series in that they were always a slice of life that left the reader with the sense that they carried on without the reader. Maupin’s fluid prose carries the reader easily through the story and it is good to return to much loved characters and see what’s become of them, but another part of me felt that sometimes it’s best not to try and recreate what was once magical and alluring as it can never be the same again. Despite the fact that Anna’s story is at the heart of the book, for me at times, the aged Anna was the least successful character. The myth of Anna Madrigal infuses the book and the characters speak of her with awe and reverence, yet none of what made her inspire such adoration is present here and she felt like she probably is, old and tired and for me that was a real shame.
Any Cop?: If you’ve followed the whole of the Tales of the City series then you’ll appreciate the conclusion of Anna Madrigal’s story and probably love the book for that alone, but for this reviewer it wasn’t completely satisfying as a novel in its own right.