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Literature / Tales of the City

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Tales of the City is the first book in a series of nine novels by Armistead Maupin, following the lives and loves of the residents of an apartment block in San Francisco.

The books largely unfold in real-time in relation to their publication, and the eighteen-year hiatus between books six and seven is incorporated into the story. While each book works as a stand-alone story, they follow on from each other (and occasionally foreshadow events later in the series), meaning that they are best read in publication order. Titles in the series are:


  • Tales of the City (1978)
  • More Tales of the City (1980)
  • Further Tales of the City (1982)
  • Babycakes (1984)
  • Significant Others (1987)
  • Sure of You (1989)
  • Michael Tolliver Lives (2007)
  • Mary-Ann in Autumn (2010)
  • The Days of Anna Madrigal (2014)

Maupin's other two novels, Maybe the Moon (1992) and The Night Listener (2000), are not part of the Tales of the City series but take place in the same continuity, with minor characters from the Tales series playing major supporting roles in both.

The first three were turned into TV mini-series staring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. Netflix later produced a 10 part sequel series with Linney and Dukakis reprising their roles. For tropes related to the Netflix series, see Tales Of The City (2019).


Includes examples of:

  • Alpha Bitch:
    • Rose Dvorak, the militant security chief at Wimminwood, who seems to make it her personal mission to make DeDe feel unwelcome.
    • Sabra Landauer, the pretentious lesbian poet, might also qualify.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the novels, Jake Greenleaf is a gay trans man, and has consistently identified as such since his late teens. In the Netflix miniseries, he previously identified as a lesbian (and is still in a committed relationship with his lesbian girlfriend after transitioning), identifies as non-specifically queer, and only begins to experience attraction to men later on.
  • Asshole Victim: Beauchamp Day, who dies in an accident after putting a hit out on his wife's unborn twins.
  • At the Opera Tonight
  • Axe-Crazy:
    • In More Tales, Mona's mom comes to the city seeking vengeance against her ex-husband (who, as it turns out, is Mrs. Madrigal) for leaving her all those years ago.
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    • Luke in Further Tales, which is fitting given that he's actually Jim Jones.
  • The Beard:
    • In Babycakes, Mona marries a gay Englishman who ends up moving to San Francisco.
    • At the end of Significant Others, Sabra Landauer announces that she's marrying a presumably gay man.
    • In Sure of You, Russell Rand is a closeted gay man married to Claire Rand.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Wren Douglas, who bills herself as the world's most beautiful fat woman.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Claire in the Netflix miniseries.
  • But Not Too Gay: Played With with DeDe in the Netflix miniseries. The bored, repressed, alcoholic, "wealthy housewife" aspects of her character are played up massively, while her decades-long relationship with D'orothea (who she's still with in the books) is said to have ended years before. She's so straight-coded that openly lesbian Margot is visibly surprised to learn that most of her significant relationships have been with women. DeDe quips back that it's been so long since she's had a partner of either sex that "you'd have to pry it open with a crowbar".
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Mona's son Wilfred, who she adopts at the end of Babycakes. He never appears again and is only mentioned once in Sure of You, before disappearing from the series forever. On the one hand, it makes sense since he literally lives on another continent from the rest of the characters; on the other hand, you'd think Mrs Madrigal would invite him into her logical family or at least think of him now and then after the hiatus and Mona's death, especially since he's her grandson.
  • Classical Music Is Boring: In the first book, while a couple of the main characters are at the opera, they go to the men's room. The younger men each do a line of coke to get them through the evening; an older man reveals that the "hearing aid" he has plugged into his ear is actually the earpiece of a transistor radio, and he's listening to the baseball game.
  • Cliffhanger: In the best tradition of the Serial Novel.
  • Gay Cruising: Michael spends much of the first three books cruising for sex when he's not with a serious partner. This catches up to him hard when the series progresses into the '80s; he contracts HIV and loses his longtime boyfriend to the disease.
  • Coming-Out Story: Michael's letter to his parents coming out of the closet, which has been turned into a fairly popular song for gay men's choirs.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • Anna Madrigal; not strictly "old", but significantly older than most of the other protagonists, and definitely written this way.
      • She definitely qualifies after the eighteen-year hiatus: she's 92 years old by the time the final book takes place, and is not only still very cool in the eyes of her logical family, but something of a famous trans icon as well.
    • Her mother Mother Mucca is both old and cool.
    • In Significant Others, Mabel may not be the Only Sane Woman at Wimminwood, given her propensity for taking a crossbow with her everywhere, but she's at least crazy in a different direction.
  • Darker and Edgier: The third book includes kidnapping, gay-bashing, and rabbit-skinning. In general, the books published in the eighties and beyond are much darker (as one would expect from stories set in gay San Francisco in that decade).
  • A Day in the Limelight: Michael Tolliver Lives and The Days of Anna Madrigal still feature ensemble casts, but focus on their title characters' stories more closely than earlier novels, which tended to run multiple story lines.
    • Averted to an extent by Mary Ann in Autumn, partly because Mary Ann was always the nominal protagonist of the first six books anyway, partly because her return to San Francisco sparks multiple stories that don't always directly involve her (more like the first six novels, in other words).
    • "Days Of Small Surrenders" in the Netflix miniseries is an episode completely centered on Anna Madrigal's humble beginnings in the 1960s in San Francisco.
  • Dead Guy Junior: DeDe names her son Edgar, after her late father.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Mrs. Halcyon has no problem with her daughter giving an interview in which she discusses being raped, but asks her not to make any mention of her consensual and loving five-year relationship with another woman, considering the subject of lesbianism too shocking even for a candid piece. Leads to a rather satisfying scene with DeDe Calling the Old Man Out.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Beauchamp Day didn't kill anyone (that we know of), but he's utterly narcissistic and amoral, and the only person in the first book or miniseries (and the only male in either of them) who seems equally interested in men and women. As long as they're not his wife.
  • Drop-In Landlord: Anna Madrigal runs the boarding house where most of the main cast live, and is a frequent presence in their lives in the first few books. She views her tenants as her family, even calling them her "children".
  • Expy:
  • Gay Conservative: In Significant Others, Mabel the bow-hunting Reaganite lesbian.
  • Happily Adopted: Shawna, Mary Ann and Brian's adopted daughter.
    • Averted in the Netflix miniseries, where Shawna reaches adulthood without being made aware that she was adopted. Much of the drama in the series comes from the people who raised her worrying how she'd take the news.
    • In Babycakes, Mona adopts a 17-year-old boy, Wilfred, whose biological family rejects him due to his sexuality. He seems to be this, though he never appears on-page again in the series and is only mentioned briefly in Sure of You.
  • Has Two Mommies: Anna and Edgar, Jr. are raised by DeDe and her lover D'orothea.
  • Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: Arnold and Melva on the cruise to Acapulco.
  • Historical Domain Character: Jim Jones.
  • Historical In-Joke: "I don't even know where Jonestown is!"
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Most of the girls at the Blue Moon Lodge, especially Bobbi. Mother Mucca is a madam with a heart of gold.
  • Hypocrite:
    • In Babycakes, Brian is outraged by Mary Ann's one instance of infidelity (which she committed in an attempt to get pregnant, since Brian is infertile) and threatens to end their relationship over it. In Significant Others, it's revealed that Brian has multiple extramarital partners. He only stops after one of these partners reveals to him that she's HIV positive and never tells his wife about any of it.
    • Also in Significant Others, Brian confesses to Mouse and asks him to keep it a secret that he's had a sex partner with HIV. Mouse agrees and never reveals to Mary Ann that her husband might have exposed her to a deadly virus. However, in Sure of You, he agonizes over Mary Ann asking him not to tell Brian that she wants to get a divorce and move to New York, and eventually breaks his promise.
  • Jerkass: Beauchamp Day, in spades.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mother Mucca is rather prickly (and swears like a sailor), but is overall a nice lady.
  • Lady Drunk: Mrs. Halcyon starts the series already fond of her Mai Tais, and by the events of Significant Others is virtually never sober.
  • Last Request: Edgar Halcyon discovers that his daughter DeDe is pregnant just as he's lying on his death bed. He dies happy after getting her to promise that if the baby is a girl she'll name her Anna, after Mrs. Madrigal. She does - and also names Anna's twin brother Edgar.
  • Libation for the Dead
  • Likes Older Women: In Significant Others, Polly makes no secret of her attraction to DeDe, even though the latter woman is much older.
    • In the Netflix miniseries, twenty-something Margot develops an interest in fifty-something DeDe.
  • Love Interest: Several notable ones outside of the main cast, including Jon and Ben for Michael and Edgar Halcyon for Mrs. Madrigal.
  • Mistaken for Gay: A rare Played for Drama example: Brian and Michael are the victims of a violent homophobic attack in Further, when they're mistaken for a gay couple (despite Brian being straight, he's very physically affectionate with his male friends). Michael clearly feels a lot of guilt about the incident, but Brian calmly asserts that he has no regrets about the behaviour that led him there and that, crucially, there's nothing either of them needs to be ashamed of.
    • Another dramatic/tragic example occurs in The Days of Anna Madrigal: Mrs Madrigal is a straight woman but before her transition (and indeed before she was aware that transitioning was an option) she was aware of her attraction to men - meaning that, in a way, she mistook herself for gay for a while. Tragically, this misunderstanding causes her (probably closeted) love interest to angrily reject her, and ultimately plays a part in his suicide.
  • No Bisexuals:
    • Averted with Mona, who is openly bisexual.
      • Though she flirts with But Not Too Bi: Tales and Babycakes both show her dating women while only having casual flings with men, but exactly the opposite is true in Further (it's even Lampshaded that she's suddenly realized she can only be emotionally intimate with men and that her interest in women is almost purely sexual, even though her behavior up to that point had indicated the exact opposite.) Likely deliberate, as her whole character is extremely flaky.
    • Played with in the case of Beauchamp, who has extra-marital affairs with both men and women, but the "B" word is never used. note 
    • Played oddly straight with DeDe, who goes from an opposite-sex marriage, plus affairs with men that she obviously enjoys, to identifying solely as a lesbian the first time she falls for a woman, with nothing in-between; this is perhaps the only case in the franchise where this trope is played entirely straight.
    • Finally Averted with Shawna, who genuinely and consistently experiences sexual and romantic attraction to men and women.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted in Babycakes - Michael chats to a waiter at a gay cafe, whose name also turns out to be Michael. They Lampshade the fact that "it feels like half the gay guys in the world are called Michael", and the waiter is referred to as "the other Michael" throughout the scene to differentiate.
    • Also, DeDe's twins Edgar and Anna are named after two other characters in the series - Mr. Halcyon (her father) and Mrs Madrigal - making this trope sort of unavoidable in their case. Anna is often referred to as "little Anna" to differentiate. Edgar is Dead Guy Junior, avoiding the problem of telling the two apart, since he's born after his grandfather's death.
  • Picked Flowers Are Dead: In one of the books, Anna mentions that prostitutes consider cut flowers unlucky, as they are beauty cut down in their prime. This is foreshadowing of the revelation that Anna's mother was a madam, and she was raised in a brothel.
  • Preserve Your Gays: Having had Michael contract HIV, which at the time was a virtual death sentence, Armistead Maupin ended the series rather than portray Michael's death. Later, once treatments for HIV had become widely available, Maupin resumed the series with the aptly named Michael Tolliver Lives.
  • Put on a Bus: Mona moves to Seattle off-page between More and Further, and then finally ends up in London in Babycakes. She re-appears in Sure of You, where she and Mrs Madrigal vacation to Greece together, but is the only member of the main cast to move away from San Francisco before the hiatus, making her less central to the story.
    • Bus Crash: Michael Tolliver Lives reveals that Mona died of cancer in her late forties/early fifties, during the hiatus between Books #6 and #7.
  • Punctuation Shaker: D'orothea's real name is just Dorothy. She added an apostrophe and changed the ending in order to make people think she was more "exotic" and thus get more modeling work.
  • The Quincy Punk: Douchebag (Heidi to her mother) - a green-haired punk who wears garbage bags, hangs out in filthy dive clubs, sticks gum up her nose, wants to start a band in which the members menstruate on the audience, and agrees to commit assault on a heavily pregnant woman with the intent of causing a miscarriage for the princely sum of three hundred dollars. Oh - and she's twelve.
  • Rape as Drama: DeDe is raped by Jim Jones. The rape occurs off-page, but is recounted in an interview.
    • Ironically, the same character deliberately invoked this trope in the first book, falsely claiming to have been raped (by someone with whom she was actually having a consensual affair in which she was the seducer) just so she wouldn't be left out of her club's talk on sexual assault.
  • The Reveal: Lots and lots and lots.
  • Romance and Sexuality Separation: In the later books, Brian is happily married to Mary Ann, but carries on affairs with other women behind her back, only stopping after one of the other women informs him that she contracted HIV.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Jon, who contracts HIV and dies of AIDS off-page between Further and Babycakes, after playing a major supporting role in every prior book.
  • Serial Novel: Originally published as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • Shipper on Deck:
    • Mrs. Madrigal takes great delight in pairing off her "children".
    • In Significant Others, all of Michael's friends try to get him together with Thack, even though they barely get much of an opportunity to get to know each other over the course of the book. Father Paddy Starr even declares that he'd love to do a blessing ceremony for them.
  • Shout-Out: The first novel has numerous references to Alfred Hitchcock and especially Vertigo, but the miniseries takes it to a whole new level, including a pastiche score.
  • Significant Anagram: Anna Madrigal aka "A Man and a Girl".
  • Straw Feminist:
    • Mona can come across this way on occasion.
    • Wimminwood is a hotbed of straw feminists, particularly its militant security chief, Rose Dvorak, whose hair is shaved in such a way that you can see a huge female symbol on her head.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: In Further, the movie star's name is constantly blanked out. It's commonly believed that he is Rock Hudson, who was still in the closet at the time that Further was published.
  • Spoiled Sweet: DeDe. By the end of the second book, DeDe is able to stand above the gossip and controversy that the people in the upper class live for. She also makes the conscious decision to keep her kids, despite Beauchamp's protests.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Twins Jennifer and Jonathan a.k.a. "Ani and Raven" from the 2019 miniseries bear a passing resemblance to Edgar Jr and Little Anna from the books (particularly their extended cameos in The Night Listener), but without the narrative baggage of being DeDe's kids.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Prue Giroux. Most women would probably run far away from a guy who skins rabbits and steals children. Prue actually buys into his bullshit explanations.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Poor, poor DeDe. Sure, she starts out as spoiled and manipulative, but she has to contend with her husband's total indifference towards her; her beloved father's sudden illness and death; an accidental (and initially unwanted) pregnancy; her husband putting a hit out on her unborn babies; her husband's death in a freak accident; being caught up in Jonestown and barely escaping the massacre; being raped by a psychopath; being arrested in Cuba for homosexuality and forced to flee with her children as a refugee to the States; having her girlfriend choose to stay in Cuba and deny their relationship; and having her children kidnapped by the man who raped her. It's amazing that, throughout all this, she actually becomes a much better person than she started out.
  • Twofer Token Minority: In Tales the black lesbian model D'Orothea is the only non-white LGBT character. Until it's revealed that she's actually white.
  • Wham Line: Given the amount of reveals and plot twists, there are a ton of these.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: "Days Of Small Surrenders" in the Netflix miniseries chronicles the backstory on how Anna Madrigal came to own Barbary Lane.