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[466] Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

“What about San Francisco?”
“What about it?”
“Did you like it?”
She shrugged. “It was O.K.”
“Just O.K.?”
She laughed. “Good God!”
“You’re all alike here.”
“How so?” he asked.
“You demand adoration for the place. You’re not happy until everybody swears undying love for every nook and cranny of every precious damn –”
“Whoa, missy.”
“Well, it’s true. Can’t you just worship it on your own? Do I have to sign an affidavit?”
He chuckled. “We’re that bad, are we?”
“You bet your ass you are.”


I have no excuse for not having read Tales of the City: having lived in San Francisco for twenty-five years, being gay, and knowing all the places mentioned in the book like the back of my hand. The fictional Barbary Lane that is the domain of the series is actually based on a street called Macondray Lane right in my neighborhood! It’s my backyard.

I’m not sure I even need a lover, male or female. Sometimes I think I’d settle for five good friends.

Tales of the City is the first book of the series. It opens with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, who, seeking a change in life and leaving her cagey one, goes on vacation to San Francisco and impulsively decides to stay. Soon she finds herself living in 28 Barbary Lane and working for Edgar Halcyon, president of Halcyon Communications. Her life becomes intertwined with those of her neighbors and co-workers. There’s the eccentric marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal, the hippy bisexual Mona Ramsey, the lothario Brian Hawkins, the sinister and cagey Norman Williams, and Michael Tolliver, the sweet boy-next-door gay guy who is always “thriving on downers.” Later, her boss and his affluent family come into Mary Ann’s social adventures by way of some astonishingly contrived coincidences.

Hell, Mouse! I hardly know any straight men anymore.
You live in San Francisco. (Mona Ramsey)

Tales of the City is no high literature, but Maupin writes with warmth, acuity and tremendous authenticity about ordinary people learning to live with themselves and one another, regardless of sexual, gender, and cultural difference. I think the charm is that San Francisco being a very small world in which these characters, all separated by less than six degrees of separation, and flawed by human frailty, criss-cross each other’s lives in shifting vignettes, in the most humor0us, unexpected way. How these lives often intersect is also blackest when it’s funniest, hinging on finding a sense of permanence and love in a world in which all the values are being reassessed. The book is a collective vignette of life in 1970s San Francisco, and in spite of the huge cast of characters, everything is explained and tied up neatly.

400 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


6 Responses

  1. It’s been years and years since I’ve read these books and i wonder if I would like them as much now. Thank’s for the reminder.

  2. This series is one of my favorites — I lived in SF about 15 years ago and devoured each one. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It’s light reading but the characters will stay with you forever. I love the quote you start your review with — for me that sums up San Francisco perfectly.

  3. I just read this book last year and really enjoyed it. It was like reading the best gossip – and this from someone who doesn’t even read People magazine. I haven’t been to San Francisco, but these books are so evocative of a place. i love them.

  4. This book has been on my wish list for a long time… glad it was so much fun!

  5. […] [466] Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin […]

  6. I have lived in the SF Bay Area my whole life, except during college, and it is a shame that I have never read this book. I bought the first in the series after seeing something about the author on PBS many years ago and have sadly never gotten around to reading it. Based on your review it sounds like I am in for a treat when I do finally read it.

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