Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City

  • 70-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 115 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Tales of the City Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 70-page guide for “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 115 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Secrets and Sexuality.

Plot Summary

Originally published in 1978 by American author Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City is the first installment in a nine-book series of the same name published between 1978 and 2014. The novel takes place in San Francisco in 1976, as a young woman named Mary Ann Singleton, seeking a change in her life, moves to the city and resides at 28 Barbary Lane. There, she finds herself intertwined with her neighbors and their complex lives. Exploring the culture of 1970s San Francisco, particularly the growing gay culture as well as underground movements, the book explores themes of sexual and emotional freedom, homophobia, counterculture movements, and what it means to be a family.

The novel begins as naïve, Midwestern secretary Mary Ann decides to transform her vacation in San Francisco to a permanent move and thereby revamp her boring life. She finds temporary housing with her former high school friend Connie Bradshaw, a free spirit involved in the era’s sexual revolution, before moving into her own place at 28 Barbary Lane, an apartment building run by eccentric, kind, and open-minded Anna Madrigal.

Mary Ann quickly befriends her new neighbors, including nervous advertising executive Mona Ramsey. Mary Ann starts working at Mona’s firm, Halcyon Communications. The company is run by Edgar Halcyon, a powerful businessman dying of kidney disease. After a stressful day at the office, Edgar happens to meet Anna at a park, and the two begin an affair. Mary Ann is introduced to Edgar’s scheming, amoral son-in-law, Beauchamp Day, and begins an affair with him, unaware that he’s cheating on his wife, DeDe Halcyon Day, who is Edgar’s daughter. Meanwhile, Mona’s gay best friend, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, moves in with her and becomes friends with Mary Ann. They become close with liberal lawyer Brian Hawkins, as well as the offbeat, mysterious Norman Neal Williams, who lives in an unconventional roof apartment.

The characters all face different challenges. Mary Ann adjusts to a new life, while Mona loses her job and struggles to pay the bills. Michael falls in love with a handsome doctor named Jon Fielding, Anna and Edgar become closer, and DeDe tries to find an identity for herself outside of her marriage. Their lives continue to intersect in unexpected ways. Mary Ann has a traumatic experience at the crisis hotline where she volunteers, when her fellow volunteer kills himself on the job. Mary Ann seeks comfort with Brian and tries marijuana for the first time. Mona is contacted by a former lover from New York, D’orothea Wilson, while a conversation with Anna sheds new light on their early days in the apartment building. Michael’s relationship with the doctor grows more passionate. Edgar discovers that Norman may be trying to blackmail Anna, due to secrets from her past, while DeDe becomes pregnant after an affair with a grocery delivery boy. When a male gossip columnist discovers DeDe’s affair and threatens to expose her, she sleeps with him to preserve her secret.

Mary Ann begins investigating the many secrets surrounding her neighbors, discovering that Norman is a disturbed man who is blackmailing multiple people in the apartment building. He’s uncovered secrets about Anna’s early years which he’s attempting to use as leverage for special treatment in the building, and his demands are escalating. Mary is determined to protect her friend and landlady. Michael’s attempts to raise money for himself and Mona for leisure goes well, but he and his boyfriend begin to argue over money and Michael’s closeness to Mona. Mona fails in her attempts to help D’orothea resolve her estrangement with her parents. Brian begins loosening up and exploring his sexuality, putting him more at ease. The book and all of its stories come to a conclusion on Christmas Eve, as many secrets are revealed at Anna’s party. DeDe is about to reveal her pregnancy when Edgar’s illness takes a turn for the worse, and he passes away suddenly. The specter of Norman’s secrets looms over their heads, until he gets drunk and falls off a cliff, bringing an end to his life and his threats.

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Chapters 1-12