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Review of Armistead Maupin's "Mona of the Manor" - stories from the countryside.
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Review of Armistead Maupin’s “Mona of the Manor” – stories from the countryside.

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Ten years ago, Armistead Maupin confidently announced that it was finished. The Days of Anna Madrigal, the ninth installment of his renowned queer novel series, Tales of the City, was believed to be the final appearance of the characters living at 28 Barbary Lane. However, the concept of a chosen family has been captivating since the release of the first Tale in 1978. Maupin has returned with a tenth addition. How melodious is this unforeseen performance?

This version of the Tales takes place in the early 1990s and is led by Anna Madrigal’s daughter, previously known as Mona Ramsey but now going by Mona Roughton. Following the death of her gay husband Lord Teddy Roughton, Mona has inherited Easley House in the Cotswolds, inspired by the real Stanway House in Gloucestershire. Mona is a forceful presence, similar to the traditional lord of the manor character, but with a habit of smoking weed and sporting fiery red hair. She admits to having a confrontational nature and often brings a water cannon to a fight. While Mona shares her mother’s kindness, composure, and generosity, she embodies these traits in a larger-than-life way.

Easley itself is impressive in size and appearance. The building boasts a sprawling design with tall roofs and darkened limestone walls resembling a tiger’s hide. The top is accented with ornate crenellations, and the front door is grand and visible from far away.

While 28 Barbary Lane presents a romanticized view of progressive San Francisco, Maupin’s Easley serves as both a tribute to and a caricature of a specific type of aristocratic Englishness: reminiscent of Wodehouse, located near Saltburn, and heavily influenced by American culture. The eaves are home to bats, there are mischievous antics with groundskeepers, the local pub is frequented by down-to-earth regulars, scotch eggs and scrumpy are enjoyed, and a grand summer solstice celebration featuring morris dancers is anticipated.

The country house tradition that Maupin is portraying in Easley’s story leaves his future uncertain. In order to keep the charming yet dilapidated property afloat, Mona decides to welcome guests and entertain them with fabricated stories about the previous owners. Among these guests are American tourists Rhonda and Ernie Blaylock, with Rhonda resembling Mary Ann Singleton in her amazement at Easley’s beauty and novelty, while her husband is portrayed as an unsympathetic Republican. When reflecting on her experience as an American settling into life in England, Mona shares that “Easley is a great teacher.” It is at Easley that Rhonda learns things about herself and her marriage that significantly alter the course of her life and the novel.

Embedded within the main story are the recurring characters and themes of sexual freedom that are crucial to Maupin’s writing. The eccentric and enigmatic Anna Madrigal and Michael Tolliver, Mona’s former confidant and nicknamed “Babycakes,” both make an appearance. Throughout the story, Mona engages in a messy affair with Poppy, the postmistress of the village. Mona’s multiracial butler, Wilfred, is also her adopted gay son, who shares her sense of humor and outspokenness. Maupin’s trademark blend of social commentary and exaggerated humor can be seen in this story as well, with the whimsical antics of this LGBTQ+ paradise always tempered by the looming threat of AIDS. The author’s reflections on San Francisco are poignant, as the city is plagued by the disease and filled with reminders of lives lost: “Today, the streets of Castro feel haunted, with emaciated men covered in purple lesions.”

During the course of the narrative, some of the most captivating and engaging writing takes place when the story shifts away from Easley. At one point, 26-year-old Wilfred, fed up with being the only gay in town, decides to take a train to London to experience the liveliness of Soho and eventually Hampstead Heath. On the heath, Wilfred engages in a sensuous and well-described escapade of cruising and cottaging, with bobbing heads in the shadows, the lingering scent of poppers and wet leaves, and the enthusiastic cheers from onlookers as someone reaches their climax. It is a hedonistic experience, but also one that offers feelings of safety and kinship in the deep, Shakespearean-like woods.

Wilfred adds more passion and tangibility to the novel’s sexual norms and has a significant role in the plot. However, there is room to develop his character further. He sees through Mona’s performative behavior and supports her when needed. When Mona’s relationship with Poppy faces discrimination due to Poppy’s transphobia, Wilfred provides quiet guidance as Mona navigates the hurtful situation. Wilfred’s blend of gentle warmth and curiosity is a classic characteristic of Maupin’s characters, but his background and inner thoughts are only briefly mentioned. If there is an 11th installment of the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if it delved deeper into Wilfred’s perspective and experiences.

Despite its entertaining humor and inviting warmth, there are some aspects of the story that are not as successful. The treatment of important plot points is brief and the buildup to key scenes is confusing. The ending also feels lacking, as the highly anticipated drama of the midsummer party quickly loses its momentum in just a few pages. The novel ends rather abruptly and the resolution to the central crime seems implausible, with the emotional impact being overlooked. While the witty humor and clever wordplay are a delight, much of the dialogue is overly explanatory and serves to push the story along rather than feeling natural. This is evident in the discussion between Mona and Rhonda regarding sexuality and faith, which feels forced and insincere.

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Can it be said that I am giving too much weight to this lighthearted novel? Despite its focus on the value of enjoyment, Mona of the Manor is a charming and enjoyable addition for fans of Maupin, serving as an extra present to delight them.

Source: theguardian.com