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The Great Believers

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In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico's funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico's little sister.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.

The Great Believers has become a critically acclaimed, indelible piece of literature; it was selected as one of New York Times Best 10 Books of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, a Buzzfeed Book of the Year, a Skimm Reads pick, and a pick for the New York Public Library’s Best Books of the year.

421 pages, Hardcover

First published June 19, 2018

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About the author

Rebecca Makkai

24 books4,295 followers
Rebecca Makkai's latest novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; it was the winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, and the LA Times Book Prize; and it was one of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of 2018. Her other books are the novels THE BORROWER and THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, and the collection MUSIC FOR WARTIME -- four stories from which appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. A new novel, NINETY-FIVE, will be released by Viking in 2022 or early 2023.

Rebecca is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. Visit her at RebeccaMakkai.com or on twitter@rebeccamakkai.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 12,363 reviews
Profile Image for Dan.
Author 5 books462 followers
May 28, 2018
In a weird way, I feel that this is the sweeping gay masterpiece that A Little Life should’ve been. It’s a nice long read about a close-knit group of gay friends and their straight allies that jumps back and forth between the height of the AIDS crisis in Chicago and present day Paris. Makkai does a pretty clever thing here by drawing parallels between the Lost Generation from WWI and survivors of the AIDS crisis. Ordinarily, when I read books that go back and forth between two narrators I tend to have a favorite, but in this case I didn’t. Both Fiona and Yale’s parts address the central question of what happens to our communities when they are ravaged? Who carries on the memories? What does it mean to take on the burden of that mantle? And how do families—biological and chosen—reconcile with lives that can be simultaneously too short and too long?

To say that I loved this book would be both an understatement and a misrepresentation. I can’t say that it was the best book that I’ve ever read or the one that moved me the most. Some parts—like Yale’s almost aggressive naïveté or Claire’s tenuously grounded animosity towards her mom—troubled me from a craft perspective, but I somehow love it all the more for its flaws. It’s almost like that friend who you know is kind of a boar but you enjoy spending time with anyway. I loved the flaws here. I was in the world fully.

If you liked this, make sure to follow me on Goodreads for more reviews!
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,974 reviews1,986 followers
November 3, 2020
DNF @ p.148

What, I hear you thinking, is wrong with this old man? DNF a five-star read? Five-star a DNF? ::side-eye::

The fact is that I lived this story. I lost the love of my life to AIDS, and attended far too many funerals and memorial services before I was 30. So I really just can't finish the book. I am not up for those wounding memories to be poked with a stick.

The prose is exemplary in its economy and precision, both qualities I admire greatly. Yale came fully into his manhood for me when, on the last page I read, he reflected:
...even if the world wasn't always a good place, he reminded himself that he could trust his perceptions now. Things were so often exactly what they seemed to be.

Precisely, Yale, they so often are and one is always wise to remember that fact. Occam proposed his razor for a reason. It's an incisive (haw) insight.

So while I fully support the praisemongers in their efforts to convince others to read this book, I am not possessed of the emotional horsepower to do it myself. I encourage y'all to take up the challenge and read it, tout de suite, and predict most will come away with a moving and fulfilling experience.
Profile Image for Rebecca Makkai.
Author 24 books4,295 followers
February 5, 2018
Only giving this five stars because I'm married to the author's husband.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,716 followers
May 27, 2018
There’s an important story here (at least in the 1985 strand) as AIDS cuts through the Chicago gay community – but something about Makkai’s style left me feeling mostly disengaged from it in emotional terms. Sure, I had moments of anger as we witness a dead man’s parents exclude his lover from the funeral, the horrible voyeurism that makes a thing of a man being gay, black, whatever. But overall I was never able to get involved or attached to what is going on.

Add to the style a baggy structure that flips between 1985 and 2015, and a whole other story that has little connection to the first one other than featuring the same character, and the book started to alienate me further.

What is it about contemporary authors that they almost all seem to think that they need multiple narratives, times switches and excess baggage to create a novel? A more careful, focused, intimate story of the AIDS crisis and its effects might have made this more palatable.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 38 books11.4k followers
June 1, 2019
I read this novel when it was first published in 2018 and I was gobsmacked by how spectacular every moment was -- and by the rich panorama Rebecca Makkah created of Chicago in the 1980s and Paris in 2015.

I was so enamored with it and I missed the characters so much that last month I bought the audiobook so I could experience it once again.

And I loved it even more. Michael Crouch's narration is spectacular: so many voices, all distinct, and he captured beautifully the rhythms of Makkah's prose -- and its moments of spectacular ebullience and hope, and then its tragic despair and wistfulness.

My God, this book (and this audiobook) is a gem.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,513 reviews29.4k followers
July 8, 2018
I'm between 3.5 and 4 stars, rounding up.

At the start of The Great Believers , Rebecca Makkai's beautifully poignant yet meandering new novel, it is 1985, and Yale Tishman and his partner, Charlie, are preparing for the memorial service for Nico, a friend who has recently died of AIDS.

The gay community in Chicago where they live has been devastated by this recently discovered disease, as have gay communities across the country. The sense of loss they feel is just beginning to hit them, as they begin hearing more and more about people getting sick, more people living in denial and fear, more people simply disappearing.

As much as the disease and people's attitudes towards it affect him, Yale has other things to focus on. As the development director for a university art gallery, he stumbles on an unexpected windfall: an elderly woman wants to bequeath her collection of 1920s artwork to the gallery. But uncertainty about the artwork's authenticity and familial outrage at the potential value of a gift that could be given to strangers causes Yale and his colleagues more stress than anticipated, at a time when emotions are running high in his relationship with Charlie as well.

With the disease circling ever closer, Yale finds his life changing in many ways, and he begins relying more and more on Fiona, his friend Nico's younger sister. Fiona is wise beyond her years, and finds herself acting as a companion of sorts, and ultimately, power of attorney, for many of her late brother's friends. It's a role that impacts her greatly.

"'The thing is, the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't, it's a judgment on your hubris.'"

In a parallel storyline which takes place 30 years later, Fiona has traveled to Paris to try and find her estranged daughter, who had fled the U.S. after joining a cult. Fiona's relationship with her daughter has always been difficult, but she hopes to make peace with Claire. She stays with an old friend from Chicago, Richard Campo, a photographer who made his name in the 1980s taking pictures of those in the community affected by AIDS, many of whom were his friends and former lovers.

Surrounded by memories both photographic and anecdotal, Fiona is haunted by the ghosts of her friends. She comes to realize how much she sacrificed caring for and loving these men, sacrifices which affected her marriage, her relationship with her daughter, and her life. But given the chance, would she do it over again, or would she put herself and her own life first?

Parts of this book were tremendously moving and poignant, reminding me both of the movie Longtime Companion and, at times, Tim Murphy's gorgeous novel, Christodora (see my review), although this is very different. Makkai did a phenomenal job capturing the emotions, the fears, the culture, and the challenges of those infected with AIDS in the early days of the disease.

I enjoyed Fiona's character and her journey, but I could have done without her protracted search for her daughter and her interaction with another random character, although I like the way her modern-day storyline intertwined with Yale's. And while I loved Yale's character and could have read a book about him alone, I'll admit I could have done without the whole art thing, although it did set other plot points into motion.

I was fortunate to come of age after AIDS had been discovered so I understood the risks and methods of prevention much better than those who came before me. But that doesn't mean that life in the late 1980s and early 1990s weren't without fear and ignorance and prejudice toward those with the disease.

Makkai is a tremendously talented writer, and I've read a few of her previous books. While this book frustrated me at times, I still really found it compelling and emotional, and feel like Makkai did an excellent job examining a bleak time in the LGBT community.

See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com, or check out my list of the best books I read in 2017 at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-best-books-i-read-in-2017.html.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
May 3, 2018
I found The Great Believers really dry and boring. It's about the AIDs epidemic and a group of gay friends, split between 1985 and 2015, and yet this subject that should have been deeply emotional left me cold. I didn't care for the characters and there were huge chunks that could have (and should have) been cut out.

The Heart's Invisible Furies and The House of Impossible Beauties also look at this time period and do a much better job of it, in my opinion. Each have more interesting characters, and the former especially has a far more engaging story. The only character I was able to form any kind of connection with in this book was Yale, and even that took some time.

It just dragged a lot, with many parts feeling superfluous. The Paris chapters were particularly dull and they felt like a completely separate story - one I don't really feel needed to be told. Overall, the prose was lengthy, repetitive, and difficult to enjoy.

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Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,781 reviews14.2k followers
March 11, 2018
4.5 The story opens with the death of a young gay man, named Nico. Disowned by this family for his sexual preference, that is all but his younger sister, Fiona, who is with him until the end. This is her introduction into the gay community, a community that will embrace her as she embraces them. It is the eighties in Chicago, Boys town and the AIDS epidemic is in full swing. We meet many of these young men, so many whose families have cut them loose. See their fear, their sorrow as more die, or find out they have the virus. Fiona, is with many of them, caring for them when they cannot care for themselves. I can't imagine watching everyone you love die, and we see how this affects Fiona in her life a dual story line with the second in 2015 as Fiona searches for her own grown daughter. She finds Richard, a photographer, a survivor from the eighties, and there will be another to survive, a total surprise.. Reminded me a little of A Little Life, the scope, the friends, losing so much.

Maybe because it was set in Chicago, all places I've been, so could imagine this story visually.Belmont Rocks, Lincoln Park and the zoo, Halsted, and Ann Sathers restaurant, one of my favorites in the city. In the Seventies, I hung in Old Town with a group of friends, two were gay, a couple, Jimmy and Max, they were wonderful, don't know what happened to them. I got married, had children, lost touch. I loved this novel, could fully embrace and connect with the story, a story that takes the reader fully into this time period. The political ramifications of a government that was totally unconcerned, a public that turned their heads since this only affected gays, which proved not to be true. The insurance companies, and the way they fought not to pay claims, citing preexisting conditions, so that many died in Cook County hospital. Families, who cut their children off, many never speaking to them again.

We see the other side too, friends banding together, trying to be there for those who had nobody. A mother who stays with her son through this terrible time. So many of these characters we come to know intimately, especially Yale, who is our narrator along with Fiona. Their is a secondary plot in the eighties that concerns Fiona's aunt and some valuable artwork. It was a little drawn out but it does tie into the story and is something Yale is determined to complete. Yale's sees it as a honor to a love that never stopped. Northwestern and DePaul, places Yale works, DePaul a school my youngest daughter graduated from, know it well.

In the present Richard and his photographic exhibit will bring the novel full circle, giving the many who had died, once again a voice. Merging the past with the present.

This was Angela, Esil and my read for March. I liked this one more than they, found it both profound, touching and a story that needed to be told.

ARC from Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
April 20, 2020
Alternating between present-day Paris and '80s Chicago, The Great Believers explores the impact and aftermath of the AIDS epidemic on a close-knit group of friends living in Boystown. The novel tells three stories, through two perspectives. In the main plot, Yale Tishman struggles to cope with the illness and loss of his friends, and placate a jealous partner who fears Yale will leave him after the epidemic ends; all the while, Yale, the development director for an art gallery, tries to acquire several high-profile pieces from the great aunt of his best friend Fiona. The great aunt, Nora, knew a wide array of famous artists of the 1910s, who died suddenly and brutally in WWI, and over the course of the novel, the tragic stories of the older generation are indirectly paralleled with those of Yale and his friends. The final storyline follows Fiona as she tries to track down her estranged daughter in Paris and make sense of the fact that she, like Nora, has outlived all her closest friends from her twenties. By the end I wasn't convinced Nora or her friends needed to be in this novel. Her subplot slows the pace down, without adding much, and the connection between WWI and the AIDS epidemic is muddled at best. But passages of The Great Believers are heart wrenching, and Yale's story at least is well structured and affecting.
Profile Image for Jessica J..
1,027 reviews2,048 followers
July 14, 2018
"But what a burden, to be Horatio. To be the one with the memory."
Like many others of a certain age who are fans of musical theater, I went through a phase in my late teens and early twenties where I thought Rent was the most amazing piece of art ever created. A lot about the show hasn’t aged well—just pay your rent, guys—but it’s still a moving remembrance of a very particular time and place: New York during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s

One of my favorite lines in the show isn’t one that I think a lot of others would cite. It’s not funny, it’s not romantic, it’s not empowering. It got cut out of the movie adaptation (and I could write a long, long paper about why that was a bad move), but it’s when Roger, preparing to move to Santa Fe, angrily tells Mark, “You pretend to create and observe when you really detach from being alive.” Mark’s response to him sums up everything you need to know about his role in the story: “Perhaps that’s because I’m the one of us to survive.” It’s a brilliant, brutal, beautiful line, for so many reasons

Having been too young and too far removed from the AIDS epidemic, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to watch huge portions of your community become sick and die of this disease with no treatment options and so much stigma. But there was a different, specific kind of psychological wrinkle that comes with being the Mark Cohen of the group, the one to survive. The one to remember.

And that’s the psychological wrinkle that Rebecca Makkai is exploring in her brilliant, brutal, beautiful novel The Great Believers. Told across two different timelines thirty years apart, Makkai examines the lingering effects of the AIDS epidemic on one group of friends in Chicago. In 1985, Yale Tishman attends a memorial service for his friend Nico, the first among his group to succumb to the disease. Over the next several years, this will become a familiar scene for Yale as more and more of his friends become sick and pass away. The one constant is Nico’s little sister, Fiona, who continues to provide care for Nico’s friends as, one by one, they receive positive tests.

For everyone in the Chicago gay community, there is the lingering question—when will it be me? For Yale, the question is present, certainly, but he feels comforted by the fact that he is in a monogamous relationship with Charlie and, therefore, theoretically, at a much lower risk of contracting HIV. Meanwhile, he distracts himself from his grief by focusing his attentions on his work. As the development director for an up-and-coming art gallery, Yale is trying to secure a bequest from Fiona’s great aunt, who spent her youth in Paris mingling with artists. Now she wants to leave the works those men left behind to Yale’s gallery, much to the horror of her family.

In 2015, Fiona is a middle-aged woman who has come to Paris to search for Claire, the adult daughter from whom she is estranged. She and Claire have had a fraught relationship since her daughter was young and Fiona had an affair with another man that ended her marriage to Claire’s father. When Claire was a teenager, she ran away with a man fifteen years her senior and ended up in a cult. She has since left the cult, but hasn’t been in touch with her mother, and Fiona is desperate to make amends.

Though much of the 1980s narration focuses on Yale, this is ultimately Fiona’s story. She’s the one who, in the present-day, bears the brunt of the psychological scarring that comes from being, as Mark Cohen put it in Rent, the one to survive. As we learn more about her relationship with Claire and why it fell apart, we see how much it was related to the pain that Fiona experienced watching her brother and so many of his friends in the gay community die.

As you can imagine, this book is absolutely heartbreaking. I started sobbing on page 334 (the start of one of the most heart-wrenching chapters I’ve read in years) and I did not stop until after I hit the final page, 418. As Yale struggles to acquire the art for the exhibition, as he watches the people around him receive diagnoses, grow sick, and die, as Fiona puts her life on hold to care for her brother’s friends, as she struggles to understand the source of her daughter’s resentments, as we wend into the final scene, at a different art exhibition thirty years after Yale’s, a scene that also beautifully called to mind the ending of Rent, there is so much pain and sadness and loss in this book.

And yet, it never felt emotionally manipulative to me. It never felt sad just for the sake of being sad. It really forced me to consider what it must have been like to live through this awful experience that so many people—and especially gay men—lived through within my lifetime. The writing can be a little overly literary in some spots and it moves a little slowly in the beginning. But it's still so incredibly well done and I want to make everyone I know read it.

Guys, read this book. It has a lot of buzz, but it's deserved. This will almost certainly end up at the top of my own Best of 2018 list. I can't recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,191 followers
March 10, 2018
The Great Believers

3.5 stars rounded up

1980s Chicago, the devastating AIDS epidemic seen through the eyes of a group of gay friends as they slowly lose so many in their circle of friends, reflects the time in a realistic way . Fiona who has lost her loving brother and many of their friends over the years travels in to Paris in 2015, connecting with Richard an old friend from those times, as she searches for her daughter and the grandchild she has not met. The chapters alternate between these two time periods and these two places and it was good to have the connection of some of the same people so moving from one time to another felt seamless in ways.

This is an important story depicting the devastation of the Aids epidemic, but there were so many times when I felt that the story dragged on, was too long, that I was not as captivated as I hoped I would be. While I was definitely moved by the 1980s sections in the first half of the book, there were too many characters and I found it difficult to connect. However, the last quarter of the book really changed my overall feelings about the story. It was in these last chapters when we see the intimate thoughts and profound affect on one of the characters, Yale, that I became much more connected emotionally. The awfulness of the physical symptoms and the emotional toll were heartbreaking and Yale is a character that I felt I came to know in a much deeper way than others . In the 2015 ending chapters, Richard’s photographic show brought the two time frames together full circle in a perfect way. Again I think it’s an important story to tell and an important one to be read. For that and the last part of the book I’ll round up to 4 stars.

I read this with with Diane and Esil. Diane loved it most , I think, and had a special connection since she is from Chicago.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Viking through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 3 books781 followers
January 30, 2023
I'm giving this four stars, though it might have been three. The '80s story was beautifully, heartbreakingly told, and was an easy five stars. But the 2015 story was boring, and while I appreciated the connections between the two timelines, I'd have preferred Makkai to concentrate on the earlier section, with perhaps a chapter at the end to describe the fate of Yale, Fiona and their friends.
Profile Image for Nicole.
512 reviews14.3k followers
April 13, 2020
Czy złamała mi serce? Tak.
Czy jestem szczęśliwa, że cierpię? Oczywiście, że tak.
Profile Image for Lori.
371 reviews439 followers
June 9, 2020
I read Rebecca Makkai's "The Hundred-Year House," gave it one star and described it as "boring" among other things. But I thought she showed promise. This one's about a subject close to my heart and the book was so highly acclaimed I was eager for the right time to come around to read it. Because I volunteered relatively early in the city where I lived, where it hit late, I knew over a hundred people who died of AIDS, only two of whom were born female. When I burnt out after six years of intense volunteering, I left with a heavy heart. I met so many wonderful people I never would have known. It's a cliche but true: I got so much more than I gave. At the time I had a great life for which I was very grateful, and it was a privilege to give of myself to this group of victims who truly WERE victims of Reagan's inaction but didn't want to be called that; they insisted, rather, on People With AIDS. They were a remarkable, eclectic community full of sick and dying people and HIV-positive people, many witty and wonderful, some angry and bitter but that was okay too, and most were not. It was a trip, and unforgettable. In time some personal friends became sick and died too. No one's path was like any other's. That's what I expected to encounter memorialized within these pages, but I didn't find it.

Makkai's created community of gay people in mid-'80s Chicago are a joyless bunch, defined by their jobs and disease or HIV status, lacking personality and vitality. It seems like the most fun person is the one whose memorial begins the book, but I suspect had he lived he'd have been reduced to rote dialogue and cliche interactions as well. Makkai tells us they're living with and dying of AIDS or living in fear of it or affected by it, they're working and partying and advocating -- but they lack personality and they're not having any fun. We're told about fun but never see it.

It's the same with the tie-in, via the main character, to the school and scene of Beaux Arts painting in the late 1800s and again in the 1910s and '20s. The main character is in the process of obtaining a valuable collection from a woman who was in Paris hanging with many artists, some of the great ones, at the time. She has stories, she has paintings, sketches, she called Modigliani by his nickname "Modi" (a nickname that had an interesting meaning which Makkai never explains). This woman lived through exciting times in art, knew some wonderful artists, she painted and she posed, socialized with some and deeply loved one. Her story should have been riveting to me. Instead, as she relates it, it's as silly and unbelievable and as wasted an opportunity as the old woman's story James Cameron chose for his beloved and ridiculously absurd and dishonest film "Titanic." The real stories of Titanic are fascinating. And so should have been that of the old woman in the book, but her tale too is not credible and lacks immediacy, eroticism and...art.

There's a second storyline in a timeline thirty years later having to do with the sister of the man whose memorial opens the book. She's a relative of the old woman too. She's in Paris trying to find her daughter who joined a cult and broke contact with her. This 2015 story is dull and as written, not at all believable. Like the main tale in 1985, it could have been compelling but wasn't. The characters in 2015 Paris are just more characters who all speak alike and aren't interesting.

A single timeline would have been better, a chance to get to know the group in 1985 better, differentiate them, care about them, march with them, get invested. These characters are not at all lifelike. The people I knew, the sick and the dying and the worried well, well not everyone with everything to lose loses their vitality, their sense of humor or love of life. In my experience the certainty of imminent or certain death heightened the life force in some people, which never happens in this book. It's as if Makkai wrote from a menu: this one is afraid of getting infected, this one is infecting people because he couldn't care less, that one is about to die, this one's an activist, those ones artistic, that one's this and that one's that -- but she forgot to write in emotion and humanity. The Beaux Arts piece could have been folded in nicely too had it been written well.

Three wasted opportunities. A boatload of characters mostly indistinguishable or reduced to a few traits, who all speak with the same sentence structure. Not one entirely healthy family relationship out of all the characters. The deep fear and sorrow before there were AIDS treatments isn't in these pages nor is the beautiful spirit of so many who died. Supposedly some of this is based on real people and events in Chicago. I'm glad I was elsewhere and knew real loving, funny, nasty, angry, emotional, and yes a handful of apathetic -- DIVERSE -- people. I won't be reading Makkai again. This boring book did me good in one way only: it brought to mind many real people I knew, some I'd forgotten about, brought some back to mind very vividly, as if they were intentionally writing over Makkai's work.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
845 reviews808 followers
March 9, 2018
When my best friend, Wade, died of complications of the AIDS virus in 1992, I was devastated and broken. If it weren’t for my fiancé (now husband), I may have spiraled into a dark, depressing space for a long time. Makkai’s book brought it all back to me—the despair, the secrets, and the shame that was forced upon my friend from the virus and the politics of the time. Even though the locale (Chicago/Paris) in Makkai’s novel is different than my own, and the plot of course sprang from the depth of her imagination, she captured the emotions and momentum of the time so well that I often twinned with the author’s story. Character-driven, theme-driven, and generous of spirit, The Great Believers is a fully realized work of art.

The novel threads two timelines—the 80s/90s AIDS epidemic era and 2015. We follow Fiona in both timelines, first a heartsick nineteen-year-old sister in the 80s and subsequently a mother estranged from her adult daughter in 2015. She never stopped grieving for her brother, Nico, for his untimely death from AIDS in 1985. The effect it had on her, while she stood by all who came after-- Nico’s boyfriend and friends and friends of friends who succumbed, left her so consumed and damaged that she never felt whole again. She couldn’t sustain a marriage, and motherhood was fraught with mistakes.

In the 1980s, Yale, a development director of an art gallery, is about to pull off the collection of his dreams, just as he finds out his boyfriend has cheated on him and is carrying the virus, which now means possible doom for Yale, too. He decides to focus on his work to escape his pain.

Nora, the elderly woman donating the 1920s pieces, seems a far cry from Yale and his personal problems, yet her romantic nature and story of loss—all her friends that died or disappeared in Europe during the Great War—resonates to the monumental losses of people dying from the virus. The urgency and sorrow are wrapped up in the wreckage. Many during the war were ravaged, sick from the flu epidemic, dead, or grieving alone. And in the era of AIDS, as Nora says, “I don’t know how you can compare it to anything else…I don’t know how it’s like anything other than war!”

And Nora still hasn’t gotten over her great love, Ranko, an obscure artist who painted some of the pieces that she is about to offer. He died over sixty years ago, but he’s alive in her heart. She trusts Yale to preserve and display her collection.

Fiona, on a tip, flies from Chicago to Paris to hopefully find her daughter, Claire, who she suspects now has a daughter of her own. So many years of embittered anguish--the misunderstandings, mischaracterized actions, conflicts, have damaged them both. Fiona’s inability to recover from Nico’s death left her heart torn, like Nora’s when Ranko died. As one character says, when asked if love vanishes, “I think that’s the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love. Not hatred, but the failure of love.”

The Great Believers delivers a sprawling cast of characters. The majority of them—even secondary and tertiary characters, have singular features that give them dimension. The past informs the present and quietly, through love, memories, and friendship, they open a window to redemption. And art. Makkai has a knack for penning each book so differently, and yet her theme of redemption through art is a bright beam that radiates like an eternal flame of hope and healing. Read it and weep!
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,715 followers
March 28, 2022
This book has a lot of the elements I look for in a wonderful story: settings that truly stand out (1980s Chicago and modern day Paris), characters I can tirelessly root for, the art world with a bit of academia thrown into the mix, and an urgent humanitarian crisis (the AIDS crisis). Rebecca Makkai seamlessly weaves the two timelines together, without any confusion on the reader’s part. She creates compelling dialogue and draws you into her backdrops with what seems to be little effort. It’s easy to imagine oneself in these places, listening to these people chat, argue, laugh and cry with one another. Fear seeped in and anger oozed out of places within me when I walked in the shoes of men and women like Yale, Julian, Terrence and Fiona. When might you be the next to be struck down by this devastating disease? Finding out that a brother, a lover, or a close friend has just been diagnosed. Family members and the community at large would largely ignore and shun those affected. The gay community, already suffering the burden of this illness, had to fight for their own rights for testing as well as fair and equitable healthcare. Once in a while a patient would be blessed with the true compassion of a caring health care provider. Good men like Dr. Cheng.

“How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?”

While Yale watches his friends disappear one by one, he is also at a turning point in his career. He has the chance of a lifetime when a special donor wants to hand over a private collection of work that was given to her personally from artists like Modigliani and Foujita among others. The ins and outs of endowments, art authentication and all that business of the art world which is far removed from my own was actually very intriguing. With not a single artistic bone in my body, I’m still attracted to the entire process from start to finish.

“… here it hung, and it was an artifact of love. Well—of a hopeless, doomed, selfish, ridiculous love, but what other kind had ever existed?”

While I was interested in the modern timeline, which has Fiona chasing across the world to find her estranged daughter, I did resent being pulled out of the 1980s story a bit. I know it was meant to show the long-lasting devastation of dealing with the incredibly sad loss of loved ones, but it diminished the emotional tug of the older timeline for me personally. Arguably, it was necessary to give the reader a reprieve from the heartache. Regardless, I prefer to remain stuck squarely in a single setting once I’ve become completely wrapped up and invested in the lives of those characters I’ve become most attached to. Others may very well find it a welcome respite.

I’ve let this book sit neglected on my kindle for far too long and I’m happy to have finally given it the attention it deserves. It’s written with a warmth and empathy that is so very tangible. Makkai handled a difficult subject with a skill and grace I very much admired. It's a lovely tribute to the tens of thousands of lives lost. I’d read her work again in a heartbeat.

“… she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter. Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed.”
Profile Image for Meike.
1,589 reviews2,810 followers
April 15, 2019
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019 Finalist
Winner of the Carnegie Medal for Fiction

A global crisis that has taken the lives of 35,4 million people, changing the face of the world forever - no, this is not a dystopia, Rebecca Makkai wrote the Great American Novel about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic (which is ongoing; here's the latest data: http://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fa...). The author introduces us to a circle of friends in mid-80's Chicago, many of them gay, and shows how HIV/AIDS impacts their lives. What makes this book particularly shocking is that it starts rather slow, but pretty quickly it becomes clear that what propels the story forward is the question who will die next - and as Makkai's characters are brilliantly drawn, psychologically covincing and vivid, it is heart-wrenching to read about their destinies. This main narrative is intersected with a second storyline that takes us and some of the surviving protagonists to Paris in 2010, thus showing how the past is never over and the dead never really vanish, which can be both consoling and haunting.

Makkai's main character is Yale Tishman, a 31-year-old gay man who works at Northwestern's Brigg Gallery. His partner Charlie is the editor-in-chief of a gay magazine and an activist. When their friend Nico dies of AIDS, Yale is devastated, but still feels like he is safe from the disease. Soon though, the epidemic starts to ravage their circle of friends and Yale finds himself at the centre of a deadly storm.

Throughout her novel, Makkai touches on many topics: There's the spread of fear that erodes human relationships ("You get afraid of one thing, and suddenly you're afrid of everything"), the questions of blame and guilt, the judgement and the stigma. There's also the disillusionment that comes with the fact that the AIDS crisis started when the gay community finally saw a window of opportunity in the fight for equal rights ("I thought it was the beginning of something. When it really was the end.").

I particularly admired how Makkai manages to convey the enduring consequences of trauma and loss: Nico's grandmother Nora was part of the Lost Generation, and she used to be an artist and the muse of famous painters in Paris. Regarding her memory of those artists who died in or as a consequence of the war and could never develop their full potential, she remarks: "Every time I've gone to the gallery, the rest of my life, I've thought about the works that werent't there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you."

The theme of ghosts is recurring throughout the novel, and the survivors of the beginning of the AIDS crisis - infected or not - are also a kind of lost generation, forced to deal with the memory of their friends who died gruesome deaths, and their own inability to help them. Makkai makes a point to also refer to 9/11 and the Bataclan attacks, large-scale events that fundamentally changed individual lives. The repercussions of such traumatic incidents are carried over generations: While Yale, who is Jewish, is named after his aunt Yael, Nico's sister Fiona names her daughter "Claire Yael", and Claire names her daughter Nicolette, apparently after Nico, the uncle who was taken from her before her birth - the shadows of the dead always remain visible.

One consolation for the characters in the book is art and its ability to preserve, celebrate and commemorate - Nora makes the art work of dead artists visible, and the circle of friends from Chicago is immortalized by their surviving friend Richard, a photographer. And his photos are not the only place where they live on, because the human heart is "a palimpsest (...), the way things could be written over but never erased."
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,076 reviews550 followers
April 13, 2020
The recent debate about American Dirt and cultural appropriation is one that has been going on for a long time. I think it was for this reason that I put aside reading The Great Believers for so long, as I simply resisted the idea that a ‘bells-and-whistles’ Big Novel about the height of the AIDS crisis in Chicago could be depicted with any degree of accuracy or empathy by a writer not even born at the time.

Yes, I know that is a value judgement in and of itself – actors regularly portray people and professions they know nothing about, so why should it be different with writers? Are we only guaranteed historical accuracy and emotional honesty if, say, an AIDS novel is written by a gay survivor? And if such a novel is written by an ‘outsider’, what legitimacy or authenticity does it have as a result?

My other issue with the book before I began reading it was simply this: We have been there before, got the t-shirt and paid our dues. There are incredible writers exploring new avenues for gay expression at present, particularly regarding issues of gender and heteronormativity. So doesn’t it seem somewhat reductive to revisit the AIDS crisis, especially given recent classics like Christodora by Tim Murphy (2016)?

Interestingly, I chose to read The Great Believers first from ‘my to read’ pile, as I thought it’d be a somewhat ‘lighter’ read than Christodora. I’m glad I did, as now I have an interesting comparison and litmus test when I tackle the Murphy novel. Of course, all of these different books about the same subject become part of a greater literary dialectic that is constantly informed by, and renewed with, each addition.

In her Author’s Note, Makkai highlights that “This project was undertaken with a great deal of ongoing thought and conversations and concerns about the line between allyship and appropriation – a line that might feel different to different readers.” I find the unusual word ‘allyship’ quite interesting. She goes on to add:

It is my great hope that this book will lead the curious to read direct, personal accounts of the AIDS crisis—and that any places where I’ve gotten the details wrong might inspire people to tell their own stories.

Well, this is precisely what so many gay writers have been doing before and after the AIDS crisis – telling their own stories. Many of them are no longer with us, swept along in the tide of devastation and loss, with all that remains in their memory being the books and stories they left behind.

However, Makkai is well aware of the appropriation minefield. “It’s about gay men; I’m a straight woman. It’s about HIV/AIDS; I don’t have it. The story begins in 1985 Chicago; while I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, I was born in 1978 and spent 1985 reading about dinosaurs,” she writes in a 19 June 2018 essay called ‘How to Write Across Difference’.

I’m sympathetic to arguments that artists need to stay in their lanes. I also believe preemptive judgment of work based on its premise, not its merits, is ridiculous. I don’t need to apologize for writing across difference; I need to apologize if I get it wrong. In the end, I’m grateful for our increased sensitivity around issues of cultural appropriation. It has made me a better, more careful writer.

Makkai explains that her narrative decisions were informed by two main considerations: Was she reinforcing or combatting stereotypes? Secondly, she found “shockingly little in book or film about AIDS in Chicago.” This resulted in extensive interviews with survivors and activists, “often speaking for the first time in years about certain memories.” (She specifically points readers to the graphic memoir Taking Turns by AIDS nurse MK Czerwiec, and The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine.)

My constant mindfulness of these lived stories kept me vigilant, kept me from taking lightly my responsibility as storyteller. It made me more compassionate. If I was going to write about characters I had no business writing about, I’d better not take them for granted. I’d better love them to pieces.

Okay … doesn’t that point down the murky path of melodrama? The AIDS crisis is still such a visceral shadow to an entire generation that it seems one cannot even attempt to write dispassionately about it. Once you let emotion into the equation though, how do you prevent it from trivialising the truth? It sounds like such a conundrum.

Makkai resolves this seemingly impossible dichotomy in quite a brilliant fashion by the simple way she structures her narrative. It is fractured between two timelines and locations, Chicago in 1985 and Paris in 2015 (the November terrorist attacks form an important backdrop.) Attached to the 1985 timeline is a linked story that stretches back to the Second World War, about the decades-long love between a muse and his artist.

It seems like a lot is going on, and the reader does have to work rather harder than normal to keep details and places in context. But this disorientation is precisely one of the effects that Makkai wants to evoke in the reader.

Despite the fact that the book is rooted so firmly in the dire events that transpired at the AIDS unit at Illinois Masonic Hospital, one of the main concerns here is the impact on the next generation, and the ones thereafter, who have all had to externalise the impact of the crisis to some extent or other.

This is focused, heartbreakingly, in the character of Fiona, who begins the book in her 50s looking back on the “bloodbath” of the AIDS crisis. Not only did she lose her own brother to the ravages of the disease, all of her close circle of gay friends succumb to it slowly one by one. Until she is virtually the only one left standing.

I honestly don’t think nearly enough has been written about the women of this period, and the impact that the AIDS crisis had across gender and sexual differences. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has commented in an entirely different context, but which speaks to so much truth in human experience: The virus knows no boundaries or timelines.

The 2015 part of the story recounts how Fiona undertakes a desperate trip to Paris to try to find her estranged daughter, born when she lost one of her last, and closest, friends from this period, an event that has startling ramifications in her own life as mother and surrogate to an entire generation of memories and hope.

What is also interesting about The Great Believers is that Makkai does not sugarcoat the lives of the people she portrays. Yes, many died horribly due to no fault of their own, but this does not absolve them from terrible choices or mistakes they make along the way, the friends and relationships they abandon, and the people they endanger when they know better. “All stories end the same way, don’t they”, Makkai writes.

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. She was a person who was finding her daughter, making things right with her daughter, and there was no room in that story for the idiocy of extreme religion, the violence of men she’d never met. Just as she’d been in the middle of a story about divorce when the towers fell in New York City, throwing everyone’s careful plans to shit. Just as she’d once been in a story about raising her own brother, growing up with her brother in the city on their own, making it in the world, when the virus and the indifference of greedy men had steamrolled through. She thought of Nora, whose art and love were interrupted by assassination and war. Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built. Why couldn’t you ever just go after your life without tripping over some idiot’s dick?

So, in the end, I was quite impressed with Makkai’s achievement here. Her writing is meticulous and her characterisation impeccable. There is a lot of background detail that the average reader probably does not even notice, but which is testament to what must have been an exhaustive research trawl for the writer. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to interview the people she did, and the mantle of responsibility this must have placed on her. But it is a truth she speaks proudly and eloquently for she is, of course, herself a great believer.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,520 reviews8,988 followers
June 15, 2019
A good read that threads two timelines together: one follows a group of gay male friends affected by the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago, the second centers Fiona, a mother searching for her estranged daughter in 2015. Fiona’s brother, a member of that gay group of friends, died as part of the AIDS epidemic and Fiona has carried the grief of his death and the deaths of his friends all her life. Despite its meandering pace, The Great Believers serves as a powerful story about AIDS and how it devastated the lives of gay men and those who cared about them.

I found Yale and his friends’ perspectives the most compelling throughout the novel. As a gay man who has grown up in an era with more preventative care, treatment options, and overall awareness of HIV and AIDS, sometimes I take for granted the work of the activists who came before me to make my life so much more bearable. Rebecca Makkai does a great job of capturing the consequences of the administration that ignored queer people’s need for healthcare and as a result buried many of us alive. Instead of presenting a one-sided image of these gay men, she imbues their relationships with complexity. I appreciated the snippets of Yale’s emotional experiences, like his heartbreak and anger at Charlie, his neediness and insecurity that manifested with Roman, as well as that relationship that could have almost been with another character at the end of the book. I most loved the quiet, consistent solidarity between him and Fiona, the power of their friendship throughout so many much suffering and death. As someone who’s estranged from my parents for the most part, I connected a lot with Yale’s reliance and closeness with his friends, his chosen family.

As much as I admired Fiona as a compassionate friend and a three-dimensional character, I felt that her storyline in 2015 did detract from the pacing and power of the 1980s plot. On one hand, not including her 2015 perspective may have made the novel more appropriative, as Makkai identifies as straight. I also feel unsure about whether Yale’s perspective could have carried the whole weight of a novel on its own, even though I liked Yale a lot. On the other hand, Fiona’s whole conflict with her daughter felt secondary and almost unnecessary compared to Yale’s point of view. This issue of pacing and delivery of the story made me feel more lukewarm on The Great Believers on the whole.

Still, a decent read that I hope paves the way for more queer books, especially books written by actual queer people, in particular queer people of color and those at the margins of the queer community. For more adult fiction queer reads, I’d recommend The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihiara, and The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara.
Profile Image for Philip.
513 reviews683 followers
August 8, 2021
5ish stars.

Comparing this book to other recent Pulitzer winners/nominees, it doesn't have the gorgeous, lyrical prose of Imagine Me Gone, the magniloquent wit of Less, or the savage bite of The Sympathizer, but it's pretty perfect in its own way.

I love the two main characters, Yale and Fiona, so much that I got emotional whiplash from how many times I was hopeful for them, anxious, heartbroken, and hopeful all over again. Their stories, taking place in 1980s Chicago and 2015 Paris, are equally gripping and although it takes a while for the connection between the two settings to reveal itself, it eventually becomes clear that they're both vital.

Makkai's prose is tidy and precise, prudently telling the story without drawing too much attention to itself. The sense of setting in both timelines, as well as in flashbacks to Paris before and after WWI, is so complete. This is aided, interestingly, by descriptions of the art scenes in each period.

This is a beautiful, gripping, important book (without being too Important) and is completely deserving of the awards it has earned Makkai.

Posted in Mr. Philip's Library
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 57 books607 followers
September 28, 2018
We get the day off to stay in bed and read big, brave and beautiful books. This is one of the year’s best and explores the realities and legacies of the AIDS epidemic through parallel narratives. It will make you fucking furious and it will instil deep faith in our shared humanity. It’s one of those great American novels that I love SO MUCH! My heart hurts and I feel profoundly altered. HOW CRAZY GOOD IS FICTION!?!? I honestly don’t know how people who don’t read get through this life.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,363 followers
March 11, 2018
3.5 stars

I really loved the themes running through The Great Believers, but I was a little less enthusiastic about the delivery.

The story is told in two timelines. The first timeline runs from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, and it is focused on a group of characters affected by the AIDS epidemic in Chicago. The story is told from Yale’s perspective, who is seeing many of his friends getting sick and dying. Much of his story focuses on the breakdown of his relationship and an art show that he is trying to put together. The second storyline focuses on Fiona, who is the sister of one of Yale’s friends, as she searches for her missing daughter in Paris.

It was no until the end that I fully understood how the two storylines fit together both thematically and as stories. When I understood the link, it was a bit of an “aha” moment, but up to that point I often felt like this book was draggy and going in too many directions.

Again, I loved the themes. There is much to be written and told about the devastation caused by AIDS in so many communities of gay men — emotionally, socially and politically. Ultimately, running through the book is a suggestion that the trauma of war is a good analogy. Many died, but survivors — including caretakers — suffered devastating trauma. I just wish the delivery in this book was crisper and less meandering.

This was a monthly buddy read with Diane and Angela. As always, many thanks for their helpful and different perspectives. And thank you to Edelweiss and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.

Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,548 reviews601 followers
July 4, 2019
I love this novel. It held me captive from the moment I read the first page until I finished a few days later. Makkai creates the world of a group of gay men - Yale and his friends - so beautifully and with such tenderness that I was caught off guard. Their community in 1980s Chicago is high stakes and concentrated. Every action, every infidelity, might result in death. I knew this novel couldn't end the way I wanted it to. The end is documented history. But I still hoped...

I was not disappointed in the 2nd story line like some reviewers were. Fiona's trip to Paris gave me a respite from the intensity of the AIDs story line. Her story illuminates how the disease has affected the lives of so many people. This is a novel that I will carry in my heart for a long, long time.
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,394 reviews804 followers
April 16, 2023
From the first sentence, I knew I was going to love this novel. Author Rebecca Makkai writes beautifully. I was immediately immersed in the lives of Makkai’s characters.

The story alternates between the mid 1980’s in Chicago and current time in Paris. The story begins in Chicago at a funeral for Nico, a gay man who died of AIDs. The reader learns of the tight-knit group of friends, who thought they increased their chances of survival by living in Chicago rather than New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, which are ground zero of the epidemic. Makkai provides an historical perspective of the epidemic, how the epidemic changed the life-styles of the gay men. The political aspects of the epidemic: the non-funding; the ignorance; the religious judgments of the gay community are cringe worthy. This portion of the novel is the most dynamic. The group of men is watching their friends fall ill. The AIDs test is new and the men are terrified to get tested. Using prophylactics is new. The men are terrified.

In 2015 Paris, Fiona, Nico’s sister, is trying to find her estranged daughter. Fiona remained a strong friend of the group of gay men. Fiona is staying with one of the survivors of the time period, Richard, who as a photographer chronicled the tragedy. Richard is in Paris for his art instillation of his photographs. With the alternating chapters, the reader learns of the tribe of men. For Fiona, seeing his photographs brings back memories she’d rather forget.

Yale Tishman is main character in the 1980’s segment. He is in a gay monogamist relationship and is tortured watching his friends fall victim to the virus. Through Yale, the reader is allowed a birds-eye-view of the horrific feel of the time.

This is a saga, an historical fiction account of the AID’s pandemic. It’s educational, for sure. But for me, Makkai’s prose is reason alone to read this amazing novel.
Profile Image for Pedro.
197 reviews431 followers
July 11, 2019
Arty, compelling, moving and superbly well written, The Great Believers is an astonishing and unforgettable piece of literature.

It’s 1985 ( I love everything eighties related) and we meet Yale (my favourite male character since Theo from The Goldfinch), his friends, his partner and co-workers at the art gallery. Some really impressive character development in here, believe me.

It’s 2015 and we follow Fiona, one of Yale’s friends from the eighties, searching for her missing daughter for years since her disappearance.

The whole book intertwines between these two time frames in a way I haven’t seen working so well in a very very long time. Genius!

If you’ve been following my reviews you’ll know by now that I love a well written sad piece of literature and, BELIEVE ME, this was really sad. So so sad. But it was uplifting too in that strange kind of way that makes you feel alive because you’ve been confronted with so much pain.

Heartbreaking and healing at the same time.

Thank you very much, Rebecca Makkai.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,167 followers
October 29, 2018
The Great Believers was a mixed bag for me, and I feel I should emphasise upfront that my 3-star rating is not an ‘all-over’ 3, but a result of ‘averaging out’ the excellent bits with the less successful aspects.

The main storyline involves Yale Tishman, his boyfriend Charlie, their social circle, various hangers-on, and the wider gay community in Chicago at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It’s delicate subject matter but handled with great empathy, sensitivity and insight. The characters have depth, the story is compelling and achingly sad. This section is the book’s core.

“If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.”

Two side plots, 100 years apart, both involve art, estrangement and Paris. These weren’t well integrated, and I think there was really only room for one of them. In both strands, much of the plot is conveyed through expository dialogue, so instead of the reader ‘witnessing’ events, we hear characters relating them in conversation. This technique is a bit baffling given there are already multiple timelines involved. Why not have a chapter with Nora in the 1920s? Or Fiona in the 1990s? Overall these side plots were less engaging, seemed rushed in parts, and drew focus away from Yale & Co, diluting the main story’s effect.

Some narrative choices were odd too. One development was loudly telegraphed early on, but not revealed for ages, leaving me impatient for the characters to catch up. Another ‘reveal’ came out of the blue, in a way that felt unearned. Then late in the book, the build up to some key dramatic scenes was undermined by characters mentioning things in conversation before we get to see them unfold, thus robbing them of emotional impact. Simple, linear storytelling would have done the job much better.

These structural complaints really aren’t deal breakers at all - it’s just that the main story is so powerful, it deserved to land with its full emotional weight. Crucially, The Great Believers gets it right when it matters most, and at those moments it is very moving indeed.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,189 reviews1,689 followers
November 22, 2018
The carnage of the AIDS epidemic has been often mined by literary writers. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is an excellent example of a haunting novel that captures AIDS devastation and enduring legacy. But Tim Murphy is a white, male New Yorker who reported on HIV/AIDS for 20 years. I wondered: what would Rebecca Makkai, who is a straight Chicagoan and was very young at the height of the epidemic have to add to the wealth of literature already out there?

As it turns out, quite a bit. I was astounded at the power of this novel and at the emotions I felt towards her characters. The story is told from two time frames: the height of the epidemic in Chicago mid-1980s and 30 years later in Paris. In the first narrative, Yale, a Northwestern University museum fundraising director, is dealing with massive losses of friends to AIDS at the same time he is on the precipice of acquiring an art collection that will propel the reputation of his respected but small museum. In successive chapters, we meet Fiona, the sister of Yale’s friend Nico who dies early in the book, who has never overcome the AIDS holocaust and is trying to locate her estranged daughter.

By focusing on AIDS in the heartland, Rebecca Makkai accomplishes something unique in AIDS literature: takes the focus away from the east and the west coast and showcases how AIDS ravages the smaller gay community in my hometown. For a Chicagoan, the book is particularly revelatory; the long-gone Chicago places of 1985 and 1986 are meticulously resurrected, demonstrating a passion on the author’s part to “get things right.”

The characters – well, the characters could just walk off the pages and the insights are sublime. One of the characters says, “I think that’s the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love. Not hatred, but the failure of love.” By concentrating on the love and connection between characters rather than solely on the tragedy, the horror of the epidemic becomes even more real. When one character whom I had grown to love is found to have the AIDS virus, I shed real tears, feeling the impact of the loss. It takes a really great author to accomplish that in a reader.

Whenever an author attempts to tell dual stories, he or she runs the risk of one overshadowing the other. Indeed, the 1980s narrative is the more compelling. Even so, Rebecca Makkai integrates her themes. In twinning the acquisition of the art collection from an elderly artist’s muse, this is said: “The war made us older than our parents. And when you’re older than your parents, what are you going to do? Who’s going to show you how to live?” Using the metaphor of AIDS as a war, it, too, decimated an entire generation and forced them to live on their own terms. The circle closes in on the Paris excerpts, when we view how the legacy of AIDS has never really left us, despite advances.

I loved this book, which is, ultimately, about the struggle to love and connect amidst the chaos of the height of the AIDS era and in modern times. At a time when many authors are being accused of appropriation, this book should lay to rest that issue; ultimately, it is the voice and the story that matter.

Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews599 followers
November 23, 2018
Actress Mary-Louise Parker once said....
“I think that no story is more dramatically
interesting than to see someone fight a battle
that is seemingly

The characters in “The Great Believers” were fighting for their lives.
So much hopelessness..so much failure....
Friends had perpetrations with each other making it hard to be with ‘the one who was infected with AIDS...while they were ‘the chosen’ with the one who wasn’t.
I remember this period of my life too....
That’s what stood out for me in this novel!!!!

The HIV/AIDS community were frightened- suffering - fighting for their lives - dying off - one by one
a battle that looked impossible to win.

They were also fighting to be accepted.....
receive compassion from family members - employees- neighbors- lovers -
be respected with dignity- treated with humanity- locally - in their state -
from law officers - and government.
The rejection - isolation- shunning was rampant and it ‘still’ makes me angry!

I had a hard time with this novel.
Oh... I care about the subject- deeply. I lived through it - as many my age did.
I went to ‘celebration-life’ gatherings with friends - weeks before their death.
Two of these friends who died were my ‘child’s teachers ...
One was her voice teacher ...
The other her Theater director.
But for whatever reason....
I didn’t stay with this novel diligently. I kept putting it aside to read other books.
I wasn’t crazy about the flipping back and forth with the two stories - nor did I like them both equally the same. Some of it was just slow and a little dull...( god I feel bad saving that).

I thought about a mini series called “When We Rise” about LBGT rights which also chronicles the history of the AIDS/HIV crisis with ‘very’ personal emotional stories - real lives - struggles &
triumphs ...
I connected deeper with that show much more than I did this book. Not sure why - I just did. Maybe because much was in the SF Bay Area? Not sure.
I know it’s not fair to compare -
And I’m not saying this book isn’t incredibly important...
I simply had to press myself at times to stay interested engaged.

It became one of those books I ‘wanted’ to love but didn’t!

3.5 ....
4 or 5 stars for appreciation...
3 stars for enjoyment....

Going with rating up...
4 stars.
My heart cares - that’s why!!!

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