Staff Picks

Tales of the City

Emily Porter

June 07, 2019


Armistead Maupin's San Francisco series is, quite simply put, a masterpiece.

I came across my copy of the dark rose taupe omnibus containing the first three novels from Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series while perusing the one and only Downtown Books in Milwaukee. This is a place where you can smell the pages as you cross the threshold, and you’re greeted by two giant felines roaming through the pillars of crowded shelves. Exactly. It’s heaven. Having previously read the original Tales of the City, having lived in San Francisco where the series takes place, and having watched and loved the 1993 mini series with the elegant Laura Linney (watch this before before the Netflix reboot), I knew when I saw it that I had to read all three books together.

Tales of the City. Where do I begin with Armistead Maupin’s life changing series? Well, quite simply put, it is a masterpiece—and probably the reason why I moved to San Francisco in my twenties.

When I first heard Netflix was making a Tales of the City series in present day 2019, I was a little more than worried. I did not want them to recreate and ruin the characters and the world I fell in love with in the pages of Maupin’s novels. As soon as I learned of Laura Linney and Maupin’s involvement, I quickly changed my mind. I became open to the fact that it may be exactly what we need today. Why not give the world more of the stories I yearned for after completion—more acceptance, more understanding, and the magic that is San Francisco and its inhabitants? I pictured walking the streets of my old Nob Hill neighborhood (not too far from the fictional Barbury Lane) and thought how wonderful it would be to watch this unfold in the present day.

I was always awe struck by Maupin’s writing. The characters who inhabit the book, who flourished into existence at the San Francisco Chronicle back in the ‘70s, captured  the essence of San Francisco during this sentimental period in time. Past so many iconic landmarks and well known Bay Area neighborhoods, Mary Ann Singleton found herself, fell in love multiple times, and met colorful characters such as Michael Tolliver, Brian Hawkins, Mona Ramsey, DeDe Halcyon Day, and the one and only Anna Madrigal. Maupin gave life to so many characters, and a real view into LGBTQ lifestyles during a time period where it was still heavily stereotyped. His series were also one of the first published novels that wrote about the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

The characters are legendary.

  • Mary Ann Singleton is a naive Ohio native who decides she needs to spice up her life by moving to the open-minded city of San Francisco. She meets her chosen family at Barbury Lane, falls in love with the Bay, many men, and sifts through jobs trying to become a prolific journalist.
  • Michael Tolliver, an incredibly kind individual grappling with his incredibly Christian family while navigating his homosexual freedom in the mostly accepting land of San Francisco.
  • Brian Hawkins, the somehow likable womanizer who traded law to experience life through serving at a restaurant. (He eventually realizes his ways are unhealthy, so dontcha worry.)
  • Anna Madrigal, the eccentric landlady, who navigated transgender issues when there were not many (if any) options or support. She deserves the prestige that follows Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Not only is she the glue that holds the characters’ lives together through clever and caring guidance, but she brings out the best in everyone that comes into contact with her.

While working in Mill Valley, California (where the Tales of the City thrived in its birth) I had the pleasure of listening to an interview with Armistead Maupin for his documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Of course, I fell even more completely in love with this amazing individual, and the mind that created such an epic world. Not only do these tales guide you through remarkably distinctive characters, Maupin also guides you through the marvelous neighborhoods and social circles of San Francisco they traversed via the 1970’s—from Russian Hill to the Castro to the Mission, even over the bridge to Marin.

These characters deal with finding their identity, come out to their families, dip their toes in murder, become entangled in love, kidnapping, cannibalism, conniving socialites, LGBTQ issues, and so many more delicious (though maybe not the cannibalism) everyday life scenarios in the Bay. I highly recommend reading this life-changing series. There are nine novels in the complete collection. I am devoted and beginning the fourth, Babycakes.

Also, plan on watching the present day reboot of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City starring Laura Linney as MaryAnn Singleton, airing today, June 7th, on Netflix.

There really is no place like San Francisco, and Maupin creates such a vivid community that it makes you want to hop across the country to see the city he so obviously fell in love with—that he makes you fall in love with through his books.

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