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The Great Believers
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Archive: Other Books > The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai -- 4.5 stars + ♥

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Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7756 comments The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
4.5 stars (round down to 4) + ♥

4.5 stars round down to 4. But, getting a heart.

I had this book on my TBR since it was released, and was even more encouraged to finally get to it when it made lots of end-of-the-year book lists in 2018. But, as I dove into it, I realized that I had no idea what it was about. I didn't even remember reading a blurb, but I just plunged blindly ahead. And was richly rewarded.

Makkai weaves together three story lines:
—Yale is a gay man living in Chicago in the mid-1980s. AIDS has hit LA and NYC, but this is the start of the Chicago phase of the epidemic. He lived in Boystown with his friends who were living carefree and finally out of the closet one year, and living in fear and constantly going to funerals the next.
—Nora is in her mid-90s in 1985 and has an art collection that she wants to donate to the art museum at Northwestern. The art is all from the 20s when she lived among artists in Paris in a new, post-war era. She was part of the lost generation, but she contacts Yale (who coordinates the gallery at Northwestern) so that her artists friends will not be forgotten.
—Fiona arrives in Paris in 2015 to find her daughter Claire. They haven't been in contact for years, and Fiona knows that she is at least partly to blame for not being able to love her daughter in a way that she should have, in a way that other mother do. But, she spent her 20s in Chicago at the height of the AIDS epidemic. She watched everyone she loved wither and die before her eyes. It is hard to move past that.

In all honesty, the three part structure did not work well for me here. I felt like it took way too long for the connections between the three stories to be woven together in a meaningful way, and the first half of the book just left me wondering, "What's the point of this?"

And, to me, the main story was Yale's story. It was so compelling and heart-breaking and eye-opening. I literally felt his fear and his resentment and his anger and his pain. And, finally, I felt his acceptance and peace. The cast of characters in his plot line—a group of gay men in Chicago—were each so beautifully drawn. And many were based on actual people, set in actual businesses, and participated in actual events that took place in Chicago to draw awareness to AIDS, both from a safe sex perspective and a health care perspective.

Nora's story was the least compelling for me. Or, I should say, her actually story of what happened in Paris in the 20s was compelling, but it was a minuscule part of her plot. I think the author was trying to make connections between how it felt to Nora to lose friends in WWI and how it felt to Yale to lose friends to AIDS, but I just don't think the parallels were pulled together enough to make it interesting.

And, Fiona's story was somewhere in the middle. It took over half the book for some of the threads in her storyline to come together, and even when they did they were just kind of ho-hum. But, DAMN, the last 25% of her story packed a huge freaking punch!

Thankfully, we spent the most time with Yale in Chicago.

The Great Believers suffers by comparison to The Heart's Invisible Furies, which had much more compelling characters and benefited from a more focused storyline that centered on one character. But, I greatly appreciated that The Great Believers gave a new perspective to the topic of the AIDS epidemic in the US by focusing on one city (Chicago) over the span of about a decade.

I felt every emotion and ended up as a sobbing puddle, and for that—thanks largely to Yale's storyline and the end of Fiona's—this may be a contender to squeak into my Top 10 for the year if that last spot isn't overly competitive.


Susie | 4488 comments Hooray! I agree that Fiona and Nora’s storylines were nowhere near as strong, but I was utterly bewitched by Yale’s thread so it still made it to a five.


Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7756 comments Yale’s storyline was phenomenal. My only complaint was that (view spoiler)

I guess that may be more of an insight to my personal character than any reflection of Yale! Lol


message 4: by Booknblues (new) - added it

Booknblues | 5743 comments it sounds like something I want to read and it was on my wishlist- which is so long I forget what is there.


Meli (melihooker) | 3224 comments I just picked this up earlier this year and looking forward to reading it.


message 6: by Amy (new)

Amy | 8509 comments Adding it to the secret phone TBR Ladies!


Meli (melihooker) | 3224 comments Secret phone TBR 😈🤣


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