Fans of the Tales series will devour this book and be happy. For others, like myself, who have not read the previous books in the series, but remember the TV adaptation - how ground breaking that was, how exhilarating to watch during a time of repression! - how does this novel, the ninth in the series, stand alone as a complete novel in its own right? I think it does, not least because we are now far removed from Barbary Lane in time and place: most of its characters have aged so much or changed or died, that we are in a different world. Some of them are still there, of course: Brian, Michael, Mary Anne, and Anna Madrigal herself. These characters connect us to previous episodes, acting like an echo chamber in one's memory; but it is Anna who holds it all together - she sits, even at the age of 92, at the centre of her 'logical family', the greatly loved, even revered, matriarch of them all, just as she sits at the heart of this book. She is surely one of modern literature's greatest character creations.
Brian, his new wife Wren and Anna travel in Brian's RV back to Winnemucca where Anna was brought up, where she has a ghost to lay from her adolescence. The story of that distant time is told in separate chapter flashbacks; it is one of complex betrayal that leads to tragedy and scars Anna for life. It shines a light in a dark corner of Anna's mysterious heart. Once she's laid this ghost to rest, the three of them travel on to the Burning Man alternative arts festival, to meet up with Jake, her young TS carer, his new boyfriend Amos, Shawna (once adopted by Mary Ann and Brian), Michael, now in his 60s, and his young husband Ben. Interleaving chapters tell of their separate journeys to the festival, and what happens when they get there (Jake and his mates have built a giant tricycle in the shape of a monarch butterfly, with Anna's name as a tribute on the front of it, for the festival procession). They tell how each work towards what they want at this juncture of their lives.
Shawna wants a sperm donor - but who will it be, Michael, Ben, Caleb, or someone she's yet to meet? Jake wants to settle down with Amos, but is he the right one? Wren wants to penetrate the mystery of her new friend Anna. Michael wants to stay young enough for his youthful husband. Anna wants to fill in the gaps of her distant past. And the young Anna - Andy - wants to makes sense of Lasko, his first love all those years ago, whom he lets down so disastrously without meaning to. Death casts a long shadow in the direction of some of these characters, but mercifully only touches one.
One of the great achievements of this book, as with the whole series, is to show how we are all connected, at many different levels, sometimes with threads we barely notice, and that through love and respect and attachment we form families of the heart.
The dialogue is natural, witty, brilliant (it could easily come from a play); the psychology is spot on; the wisdom is everywhere, though laid on with a feather; and the prose is contemporary, crisp, honed to perfection. Perhaps honed too much - sometimes the storytelling was so finessed, so controlled, I began to hope for something else, something wild to bubble up from the depths, something unexpected to wrench the story from its gentle paths. That really only happened in the events surrounding Lasko's death, which made those pages - except for the last few chapters - the most absorbing for me. But I quibble: it's a joyous and satisfying read for someone who has not read any of the earlier novels; it must be so much more for those who have.