Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review - Armistead Maupin's Mary Ann in Autumn

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy
Mary Ann has returned to the city of her youth. Full of familiar faces both welcome and unwelcome. Her life is in major upheaval following the realization that her life coach and her husband are having an affair and she has been diagnosed with Cancer. Heading to seek refuge in San Francisco and lick her wounds, she takes up residence with her oldest friend, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and his young partner Ben. Mary Ann sees her life as a series of probable missteps. She left her first husband Brian, and her adopted daughter Shawna, to be an East Coast tv star, which lasted all of five minutes. Following which she set herself up as a housewife and raised her stepson. Her dreams and ambitions for celebrity thwarted as well as the lives she ruined back in the Bay Area. Ben cunningly thinks that what Mary Ann needs more than anything is to realize she was someone and that this adoration and love will do more to help her heal than anything. Enter Facebook. She connects with many friends and fans who remember her from her old show back in San Francisco. From her silly hats worn when the Queen of England arrived, to her sub par interviews that have a campy nostalgia among the gay community. But this is also when the mysterious messages start to arrive from Fogbound One. Hinting at a dark secret in Mary Ann's past that she has never revealed. A dark secret that will help her connect to the daughter she abandoned. Shawna has followed Mary Ann's love of journalism, only in a more modern and outrageous method. Shawna is a sex blogger. But she's getting sick of the hipster, Betty Page look and wants something more. Enter "Leia." A homeless woman with a mysterious past. A past that Shawna hopes to uncover. A past that might lead back to her "mother." Can Mary Ann get a second chance at the life she threw away? Or will she become even more lost in the fog of her past? And what of those who orbit her?

Returning to the narrative style of short character studies whose lives all magically interweave, we see Maupin once again at the top of his game. Forgiven is the first person narrative style of Michael Tolliver Lives which I hated in it's overly sexual wallowing. Maupin excels at slowly weaving his story, thread by thread, where the web forms and then you realize how all the disparate elements form together into one cohesive whole. And here, he's not just working with the present, but Mary Ann's past is brought in as well. Those horrors not spoken of are back with a vengeance. The characters of the Tales of the City books are the voices of a generation. They will go down as some of the most memorable characters who so well captured a defining moment in our history. Maupin's stories have encapsulated the world as it was happening, particularly when these stories ran as a weekly serial and could move and flow with current events. Which, to an extent, works against him in this book. The earlier books, being separated from the now by a decade or more, feel timeless, at least to me. But once you start throwing Facebook around, it just seems too linked into the now. Of course, this may seem contradictory, because it was his capturing of the time that made the books what they were. Maybe I'm just a hypocrite, or maybe I'm just sick of references to Facebook. In his defense, he uses Facebook in a way that Hitchcock would be proud of. Maupin has always had that bit of Hitchcock in his more successful novels. Perhaps it's just San Francisco bringing out the macabre and the mysterious, or perhaps it's something in the water.

When Maupin starts a little mystery and slowly links it back and loops it around, I can't help but stay up into the wee hours to see where he will finally lead me. His web didn't fully enthrall me this time. Within the denouement, things started to fall apart. Everything almost seemed rosy in the end. After the bleak humor with a dark edge, it felt that Maupin forced his characters into a happy ending. He has never been shy of the darker endings before, so is it age that has mellowed him? His new young love that Ben is modelled on? I almost felt like there'd be a sing song when all the characters came together. I just think there was one too many pairs of rose tinted glasses for my liking. Mary Ann is Cancer free now? From someone who has had many Cancer battles in her family, I can say from experience, it doesn't work like that. It's not a few weeks playing with Facebook, a little surgery and you're better. It's a bloody fight that can only be won by those who struggle hard. Mouse's struggle with AIDS has been a big theme of these books, so it seems that, one, Mary Ann's Cancer is unrealistic and two, he was giving us a bone, a curable illness among the incurable. Again, rose tinting the story. This is what brought the book down a full star in the final analysis, that and why can't we have Brian and Mary Ann in the same book. It seems that since their breakup we are only allotted one. And while Mary Ann was wonderful and back to her original charm, unlike the harpy she became in later books, I have to say, I missed Brian, I have a soft spot in my heart for him.


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