Tales of the City Armistead Maupin
Date: Tuesday 2/7/12
Time: 7:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
For more than three decades, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has blazed its own trail through popular culture — from a groundbreaking newspaper serial to a classic novel, to a television event that entranced millions around the world. The first of six novels about the denizens of the mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, Tales is both a sparkling comedy of manners and an indelible portrait of an era that changed forever the way we live.
Reading Group Discussion Questions
- Tales of the City began in a daily newspaper serial in 1976 in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the short, episodic pieces were released as weekly installments. How do you think this collection “reads” as a novel? Does it feel different than other books you’ve read? If so, how?
- From a naive mid-Western secretary exploring San Francisco for the first time to a pot-smoking landlady with an elusive past, we meet a variety of different characters in the world of Maupin’s book. Who was your favorite character? Why? With whom do you most identify?
- You could say that one of the most colorful characters in the book is the setting itself – San Francisco and the 1970s. Every chapter is laden with rich and vivid references to everything from macramé to est, from transcendental volleyball to rolfing. As a reader in the 2011, did you find these references enhanced the story or distracted you from it? Were there any references you felt were too obscure or any that you simply didn’t understand?
- The novel begins with Mary Ann’s phone call home, during which she tells her mother that she wants to start life anew in San Francisco. Although she doesn’t articulate exactly why she wants to leave Cleveland and resettle in California, Mary Ann states that she “hopes” the city and the move change her. What do you think Mary Ann is looking to achieve by this move? Do you think she does it by the end of this book?
- Mrs. Madrigal continually refers to the residents of Barbary Lane as a “family.” Is this wishful thinking on her part, or do you feel that Mrs. Madrigal’s tenants are, indeed, a family?
- When Mary Ann gets hired on at Halcyon, Mrs. Madrigal observes that “you always get what you want.” Is this how you would describe Mary Ann? Does she make things happen for herself or do things happen to and for her?
- Edgar Halcyon is a completely different person with Mrs. Madrigal than he is with any other character in the novel. Why do you think he’s able to open up and share with her in a way he is unable to connect with any other character?
- Beauchamp is one of the only characters in the book for whom we do not see a softer side. He is opportunistic, surly and duplicitous. What, if anything, do you find redeemable about his character? Do you sympathize with or understand him any better by the end of the novel?
- We never find out why Norman was investigating Mrs. Madrigal. There are a few clues along the way (her name is an anagram, for example), but we never find out what he was investigating or who hired him to do the investigating. What do you think he found out? What evidence do you think Mary Ann destroyed in the final chapter, and what secret is Mrs. Madrigal hiding?
- Over the course of the novel, Mary Ann seems to become most comfortable with Michael. In fact, in the last chapter Michael serves as her confessor about Norman. Why do you think Mouse becomes her sole confidant and, in many ways, her closest friend? In what ways are they similar?
- What do you make of the chapter entitled “The Diagnosis,” in which Frannie learns that her dog, Faust, is dying? Why do you think it was included in the narrative?
- For most of the novel, Michael comes across as a confident, albeit newly-admitted gay man. His barbs are sharp, his witticisms dead-on, and he seems unapologetic in his sexuality. However, he becomes a very different person when his parents come to visit. How does your perception of Michael change when the Tollivers visit him from Florida?
- When Mary Ann makes a startling discovery about Norman’s relationship with Lexy, her first reaction is to surround herself with “Art and Beauty” before confronting him. What do you think about her reaction, about the confrontation itself, and about what happens on the cliffs behind The Legion of Honor?
- Tales of the City is the first of a nine-book cycle. Based on your experiences with this book, do you plan to read the others? What storylines are you most excited about seeing played out and which characters are you most excited to revisit in the latter books?
- In your opinion, which character changes and grows most by the end of the novel?
Purchase your copy of Tales of the City:
City of Louisville Public Library
Other Works by Armistead Maupin
More Tales of the City, 1980
Further Tales of the City, 1982
Significant Others, 1987
Sure of You, 1989
Maybe the Moon, 1992
The Night Listener, 2000
Michael Tolliver Lives, 2007
Mary Ann in Autumn, 2010
Film & Television Adaptations of Maupin’s Work:
Tales of the City (1993)
More Tales of the City (1998)
Further Tales of the City (2001)
The Night Listener (2006)
If You Liked Tales of the City, may we recommend …
San Francisco Stories, Jack London
Mark Twain’s San Francisco, Mark Twain
The Year of Ice, Brian Malloy
Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner
Middlesex, Jeffrey Euginedes
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown
Tour of the Tales: Virtually visit the San Francisco locales detailed in Maupin’s books
Everything Armistead: for all the news on Maupin, Tales, and The Musical
Enrich Your Book Club’s Experience
Tales of the City Viewing Party
Maupin’s affectionate homage to San Francisco in the 1970’s was turned into a PBS miniseries in 1993, starring Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Chloe Webb, and Thomas Gibson, among others. Take the time to screen this film adaptation and choose a few key scenes that you can show at your book club. Comparing the book to the film version can serve as a springboard for some wonderfully exciting conversation.
Tales of the City is available at Netflix.
A San Francisco Treat:
If you’re looking for a great culinary companion to Tales of the City, the freshness of the bay can come alive in a thick seafood chowder.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or extra-virgin olive oil, 1 turn of the pan in a slow stream
2 tablespoons butter
2 all-purpose potatoes, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning blend
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock or broth
1 quart whole milk
3 cups corn kernels, scraped fresh from the cob or, frozen kernels
8 ounces cooked lump crab meat, fresh is available in plastic tubs at many fish counters
4 small bread boules, 6 inches, hollowed out, preferably sourdough, optional
Hot cayenne pepper sauce
Heat a deep pot over moderate heat. Add oil and butter. As you chop your veggies, add them to the pot: potatoes, celery, onion, and red bell pepper. Add bay leaf to the pot. Season vegetables with salt and pepper and Old Bay seasoning. Sauté veggies 5 minutes, then sprinkle in flour. Cook flour 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in broth and combine. Stir in milk and combine. Bring soup up to a bubble. Add corn and crab meat and simmer soup 5 minutes. Adjust the soup seasonings. Remove bay leaf. Ladle soup into bread bowls or soup bowls and top with oyster crackers, hot sauce and sliced scallions.
Reviews of Armistead Maupin’s Works
Despite Tales of the City’s popularity and its undisputed influence on both gay-themed and serialized fiction, very few editorial reviews exist for the original novel and its five subsequent follow-ups. There are, however, numerous reader reviews about the books on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Goodreads, and Google Books.
The two most recent books in the “Tales” cycle, Michael Tolliver Lives and Mary Ann in Autumn, were readily reviewed when released and some of those reviews are linked below for your reference. Please note that while these reviews talk about the legacy and importance of "Tales of the City," they also contain spoilers of items revealed in later books in the series.
Michael Tolliver Lives