I found an old review of this on one of my blogs, so I thought I'd post it.
There be MAJOR spoilers.
July 2007: After some intense weeks, I've used the past couple days to devour Armistead Maupin's Michael Tolliver Lives, which Maupin states in not the next of the Tales of the City books, but very much is...and very much isn't.
Like all of Maupin's Tales books, MTL is a breezy read (combined total reading time = less than 24 hours, probably), and is most certainly comfort food for those of us who have read all of the Tales books. It transports us back to our 28 Barbary Lane family, as disjointed as it has become, and although it feels almost anachronistic to see these characters in the aughts rather than in the 70s and 80s where we grew up with them, it is like being back in the loving family we've always known was there.
So, do you have to have read the other books to get this one. Not really, but the journey through MTL will certainly be more fun if you have, as Maupin weaves in tales from the other books, making us feel as if we are not only looking back at Michael "Mouse" Tolliver's life, but reliving our own memories of those fabled times. I think you'll get this feeling if you're only familiar with the mini-series of the first books, but you will miss some stuff that didn't occur in those mini-series.
So now there be spoilers, so look away, Dorothy, look away:
Michael Tolliver does indeed live, having survived the AIDS epidemic -- and what he thought was his own HIV death sentence -- to ease his way into his impending sixties. It is a little unsettling to think of Mouse as sixty, and one certainly sees Maupin when one imagines what he looks like, but when you hear the lilt of his voice and his use of "Babycakes," Maupin fades away.
Mouse is a very interesting guy in his late fifties, matured and more sensible, but still suffering (albeit a little less) from his insecurities. The addition of Ben, a man who is a "whole person younger" but loves Mouse deeply, gives a nice balance to Mouse and their relationship -- while occasionally an "open" one -- is immensely stable.
Mrs. Madrigal is still around and an integral part of the book. Now in her late 80s, she is more wobbly and has long since moved out of Barbary Lane. She requires help, and a Trans employee of Mouse's lives in the same building and takes care of her to some degree. It's odd to see this woman older, but she is definitely the same Mrs. Madrigal, a tough cookie who knows how to call 'em like she sees 'em.
Brian Hawkins and his adult daughter are there as well, though Brian's story (especially his quest for Ishi's Cave) seems to have been given short shrift. This doesn't really bother me that much as -- like Mary Anne had -- I always found Brian to be the least interesting of the Barbary Lane characters. His grown daughter, though, fills an integral void in the old Barbary Lane set of characters.
My favorite character Mona Ramsey, we learn, died of cancer years ago. Mona -- Mrs. Madrigal's daughter -- was a free spirit, trouble by her existence most of the time, but an endearing one. When I learned of Mona's death, I was heartbroken that she would not make an appearance. However, Shawna, Brian's daughter, is a free spirit of her own and almost seems an amalgam of all things good about Mona and all things that were good about Shawna's not-so-natural mother, Mary Anne. She is a great addition and keeps the spirit of Mona close at hand.
The plot basically centers around the impending death of Mouse's mother, an ultra-conservative South Florida bible-thumper who once was heavily into Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign. In some ways, Mouse's mother is almost a right-wing version of Mrs. Madrigal's mother, Mother Mucca, who passed away a few books back. Michael's mother is spunky and smart-mouthed, and even though she has never approved of Mouse's "lifestyle," Maupin does manage to convey a sense of love between the two. The dynamic between Mouse's mother, his own husband Ben, his brother and his brother's Jesus freak wife, is intensely interesting. The interactions are honest, and the dialogue is only as Maupin can write...witty, but utterly lifelike. There are a few major surprises in this family dynamic, but they are ones to be savored and not revealed here.
When his mother takes a turn for the worse (with only days to live), Mouse and Ben go to SFO to get on a plane. Luckily, the plane is delayed by weather, and Mouse receives a call that Mrs. Madrigal has had a heart attack. There is no hesitation when Mouse reaches the moment of decision as to which Mother's bedside he must be at, and he stays in San Francisco to be with -- and mourn -- the mother he has always really known, Mrs. Madrigal. The moment he stops in the airport and breaks down in tears for his "mother," we know it isn't the one in Florida.
The coma Mrs. Madrigal has fallen into allows Maupin the time to get Mary Ann back into the picture. Mary Ann -- who selfishly left Brian and Shawna many years ago to pursue her career -- arrives and though her meeting with Brian is strained, they all know they are there for another reason. Maupin here expertly redeems Mary Ann to an extent...brings her a bit more back to who she was before she became the career-driven woman who, really, I ended up not liking at all. That's not true, I didn't like who Mary Anne had become.
But with the addition of Mary Ann, Maupin has made damn sure that all the surviving tenants of 28 Barbary Lane -- and the "new" tenants of Madrigal's post-Barbary life -- are there to celebrate the passing of Mrs. Madrigal. But there is a surprise...Mrs. Madrigal -- in true Madrigal form -- doesn't die. She wakes up from her coma, proclaiming "You'll never guess where I've been, dears."
If there is any qualm I have with this book, it is in this turn of events. Believe it or not, I'm a bit disheartened that Mrs. Madrigal survived. The books was so expertly built to say goodbye -- in a very loving way -- to the tenants of 28 Barbary Lane and, presumably, the series, Mrs. Madrigal's survival feels almost like an editor's note ("You can't kill Mrs. Madrigal!"). On the other hand, her survival is typical Madrigal. So, I'm torn on this ending.
What I didn't care for was the last chapter. It should have put some type of button on the whole thing, but it felt rather tacked on to me. I wasn't left with a sense of nostalgia or love. In fact, I turned the page expecting to read the final sentence of the book...and I got the acknowledgments. Most of Maupin's books end with an expertly crafted sentence that imbues you with some feeling or another. This one, curiously, did not, and that let me down a bit.
But, again, an excellent read. Maupin has given us back our Barbary Lane family, created a new one, and let us look back lovingly on lives we as the readers are absolutely sure we lived right along with Mouse and Mary Ann and Brian and Mona and the wonderful Mrs. Madrigal. If this is the last of the books in the Tales series...well, I'll miss them, but this is a wonderful ending to all of it. Just remember...there is no Fifth Destination.