Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City #1)


16255San 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.


Oh, how I love this book. I’m have to say right up front that I’m biased – I lived in San Francisco for a few years and location is a big part of the book. The story should be just as enjoyable even if you’ve never visited, but the vivid images I was able to pull up of neighborhoods and street corners is a plus.

And it was designed that way. Originally published as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle its readership was almost exclusively people who know the city well. A character goes to the doctor at 450 Sutter because everyone has a doctor at 450 Sutter, the building is so freakin’ huge. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Moving on.

The good:

  • The chapters are short and complete unto themselves, being a serial and all. That makes this book perfect for public transit, waiting rooms, bathrooms, or any other place you can steal a few minutes to read. I was able to enjoy chapters in all kinds of places with a guarantee that I would reach a satisfying stopping point within a minute or two. If it weren’t a library book I would keep it in my bag and only read in these stolen moments, it’s so perfect. But that would be hard, because…
  • …the book is like a bag of potato chips. You tell yourself you’re only going to read one chapter. Or maybe two. Okay fine, just a little more–whaddya mean there’s no more book?!
  • A fun cast of characters that is as varied and diverse as San Francisco itself. Gay, straight, bi, rich, poor, artistic types, money making types, you name it. All of it is natural, and nothing is pointed out as odd or as a moral lesson. They are who they are and it is what it is, which is the way it should be.
  • Maupin can make me giggle. From Mona the copywriter:

What was the point in feeling sleezy if you had no one to sleaze with?

Could you conjugate that? To sleaze. I sleaze. You sleaze. We have all sleazen.

He’s insightful, too:

I’m not sure I even need a lover, male or female. Sometimes I think I’d settle for five good friends.

  • I feel like I’m friends with these characters and I’ll be able to go back and visit them whenever I want. It’s a feeling I adore but don’t come across too often. When I do I horde the later books and ration them for the times I’ll need them most – stuck in bed for a week, traveling by myself, or just plain ol’ loneliness.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • It’s a soap opera. Not in the derogatory sense, but in the episodic “let’s follow all these people and their relationships as they join and part, are born and die” sense. I never got into TV soaps but this book is totally my jam, so take it as you will.

The not-so-good:

  • The writing is good but the prose is nothing special. I would argue that it doesn’t have to be because the story and the characters carry the book, layered over the amazing backdrop that is San Francisco. But if you like your sentences to sparkle you won’t find that here.

So chalk me up as a head over heels fan of the crowd at 28 Barbary Lane.