“San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous – unmistakably the handiwork of Armistead Maupin.” – Goodreads Description
I first encountered this book not in a bookshop, but on television. Years later I have now finally been to San Francisco, and the book seemed to call to me to finally get around to reading it. So I did. And I can tell you that you should too.
I wasn’t around in the ’70s, so I didn’t get to enjoy the hippy youth culture first hand (instead, I got to witness aging hippies still acting like they were part of a hippy youth culture), but I have always imagined it looking and feeling a lot like this. Eccentric landladies who name their pot plants, neighbours wandering in and out of each others’ lives and flats, sexual exploration right out in the open, terrible fashion choices and garish colours… it’s all here.
Because it was originally written as a serial in a newspaper, it’s more like a series of vignettes than a novel. Each chapter could, theoretically, be read alone, but it’s much, much better when read as a whole. There are a few unlikeable characters (of course, for balance), but I really enjoyed getting to know most of them. Mrs. Anna Madrigal (the pot-growing landlady) and Michael Tolliver (the gay neighbour) are probably my favourites. Which is cool, because there’s already a book called Michael Tolliver Lives later in the series, and soon-to-be published, a book about Mrs. Madrigal called The Days of Anna Madrigal. Clearly I’m not alone there, then.
The book is a quick read – very easy to get into, a relatively simple plot, and characters who seem to come to life on the page. Of course, my favourite part was the vivid backdrop of San Francisco – I got a real kick out of recognizing areas and places I’d seen only a couple of weeks before. My only regret is not taking it to read while I was there!
I can sense a new series addiction coming on, and I’m sure you’ll be seeing follow-up reviews of the rest of the books in the series springing up on this blog over the next few months. (I would say weeks, but I’m going to try to make myself read slowly because I’m afraid I’ll miss the characters once it’s over!)
SPOILER ALERT I have to admit that the ending wasn’t as good as I was expecting. While a lot of the plot lines are tied up by implication, some of it was a bit too vague, and a lot was left unresolved for me. I got to the end and was like, “Really? That’s where you’re going to end? Huh.”
They never reveal the secret that is hinted at between Anna Madrigal and Edgar Halcyon. They don’t tell what Mary Ann does about the Lexy situation once Norman is out of the picture, or what else he was up to. Jon and Michael don’t meet again, which you expect after reading Jon’s side of the story. They don’t really show what Mona and D’Orothea are going to do with their relationship other than that Mona is moving back to Barbary Lane. And there’s something between Anna Madrigal and Mona that is hinted at but also never revealed.
I got down to the last few chapters and was so drawn into the story that I didn’t want to keep reading because I didn’t want it to be over. But I wanted to know what happened to the characters so badly I couldn’t help myself. So you can imagine my sense of disappointment when I reached the end – and didn’t get my answers! I’m aware that this is quite a large series, however, so I’m assuming that it’s intended to continue in the next book. It had better, or I’ll consider this to be a terrible ending. Definitely get the impression this isn’t meant to be read as a stand-alone novel. I’ll report back on whether the next book resolves or continues any of these plot lines. END SPOILER
In summary, I think this is a magical cast of characters, many of whom I came to absolutely adore by the end of the book. I want more of them. And I want to know what happens to the plotlines in the following books. So you can bet your ass I’ll be moving on to the next in the series as soon as I can get my eager little paws on it! If you’re a fan of San Fran, the ’70s free love lifestyle it embodies or just enjoy reading books that are heavy on loveable characters, this is the book for you.
Author: Armistead Maupin
Published by: HarperPerennial
Released: 2007 (Re-issue, original by Chronicle in 1978)
Genre: Fiction, San Francisco, 1970s
Date Read: August 31-September 5, 2013
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