I’ll be blunt and say ‘Tales of the City’ is not the kind of book I would normally bother to read; and having now read it, it’s not a classic, I should warn you. I got hold of it because it is a favourite book of a very special friend of mine and she recommended it to me. I can see why – it’s definitely her kind of world, but not necessarily mine.
Having seemingly trashed and dismissed both the book and my friend, let me fill out the picture and then tell you what I think of the novel now.
On starting it I found myself thinking that this is what I imagined ‘Sex in the City’ to be like (which is exactly why I’ve never watched that cult TV series). I am just not interested in the sex lives of Americans and certainly not that of the citizens of San Francisco. From the beginning it was clear that sex was going to be a major obsession. I can appreciate that back in 1978 when first published, this was perhaps ground-breaking stuff dealing openly and honestly with the gay scene in the city. But now, there’s less shocking or amusing content: this stuff is all well-known and that makes the subject matter a tad boring.
As I say, ‘Tales of the City’ is not a classic, but then Armistead Maupin never intended it to be such when writing his newspaper serial. It’s essentially pulp fiction but to call it so is to do a disservice to the greater story arc. It’s an intelligent and liberal-minded easy read. The hardest thing you have to do in reading is keep a track on the characters because there is quite a lot of them! But don’t misread that to mean that it is as superficial as a trashy murder mystery with characters distinctly two-dimensional: far from it. There’s much more to ‘Tales of the City’.
My interest in the novel was piqued when the marijuana-growing landlady, Anna Madrigal, was introduced. I knew this was going to be an interesting character and, in fact, it is her and the mythical block of apartments she rents out to the characters which is the glue not just to this novel but to all the series of books which come after. She was a brilliant idea of Maupin’s and she alone earns at least one of the stars I’ve given in this rating. The whole tone and intention of the plot changed when she appeared. Suddenly, it wasn’t all just about sex.
Forget the sex, drugs and gay scene thing – it is the characters we come to care about and be interested in, not least the enigma of just who Madrigal really is. I knew I was hooked by the story when I realised I was near the end and I didn’t want the story to finish. For me, as I’ve said many times before, this is the test of a good book. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t classic literature: it’s fun and sweet and lovely. It is bizarrely ‘Anne of Green Gables’ like set in a different world and utterly different culture. You come to this book smiling and feeling good even while wondering how some of the stories are going to turn out.
Will I carry on reading the rest of the series? I don’t know – and that’s why I’m not giving the novel a full set of stars. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and my friend was right when she said I’d love it, but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to buy the next book, perhaps because it lacks the bite which makes you question life which I prefer in a book. That said, if it comes my way as a Christmas or birthday present, I’d dive in greedily like a schoolboy secretly given a pack of sweets all to himself. I certainly think I’d like a secret rendezvous with Anna Madrigal again and, at some point, I’m sure I will.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org