Mary Ann in Autumn, By Armistead Maupin

The new Tales of the City: older, but not much wiser
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The Independent Culture

Ever since they started appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, the Tales of the City stories have been wonderfully of their moment: the cultural references fresh, the characters believable and the storylines just waiting to be told. After a break of 21 years (2007's Michael Tolliver Lives was not a Tales of the City novel, Maupin said), the folk from 28 Barbary Lane are back, in their fifties, in Mary Ann in Autumn. The cultural references are still fresh (Facebook and a labradoodle are vital plot levers) and the characters still compelling – and boy do the storylines make the reader feel old.

The notion of the logical (rather than biological) family is still paramount as the novel opens, with a young, transsexual lodger for the gnomic Mrs Madrigal, and Mary Ann fleeing back to San Francisco having caught her second husband, via Skype, having sex with her life coach. But the Best Friends Forever insularity of the earlier novels is under strain. Michael has a husband, Ben, and life has moved on since Mary Ann ran off to New York for Mr Skype and a TV career. With Mary Ann's daughter (now a sex blogger), transsexual Jake, and Michael and Ben's attempt at non-monogamous fidelity, the logical siblings are navigating more traditional relationships.

Previous Tales... have offered us heartbreaking insight into the tragedy of Aids; this one, poignantly, has an old friend negotiating his partner's Alzheimer's. The quotidian problems of age, it seems to say, are universal.

The writing is, at times, embarrassingly clunky: especially the unbelievable coincidences and the awkward recaps of the past 21 years. Speaking of which, poor old Mona! What did she do to deserve being dispensed with in a couple of lines? But even the novel's naff bits are, in their way, charming.

"I made [John Mayer's 'Heart of Life'] my ringtone, actually," confesses Mary Ann at one point. "That's hopelessly unhip of me, right?" The whole novel, with its elderly gays and tragic divorcées, is unhip, as it happens. It's still speaking to its ageing readers, then.

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