The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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A story split between two times, The Great Believers on one hand delves deep into the AIDS crisis sweeping Chicago in the 1980’s through the eyes of Yale and the gay men and friends that make up his chosen family. On the other hand, the story brings us to Paris in 2015, where we follow our other main character, Fiona, as she tries to outgrow her past in 1980s Chicago and reconnect with her daughter.

I don’t think I really have the words to talk about this book. It has followed me around for the last two weeks while I was reading it and, still now that I’m done, is constantly on my mind. Makkai scooped up a stretch of time and place and carefully and respectfully held it out for a reader to dive into. I experienced the indifference of the government and the ignorance of a society, as well as the terror, loss, and friendship of Yale, Charlie, Teddy, Julian and the rest of the men living through the spread of AIDS as fully as though I were really there. I cannot commend the author enough for creating this book and for recreating the scene of this time for those of us who didn’t know the extent of the crisis in this city.

One of the main reasons this book is so incredible is absolutely the character development. Yale is so human in his compassion and in his failures, and seeing the disease take down people in his life like dominos is one of the most heartbreaking things I can remember reading. The way he frames himself as a mentor and is careful to avoid the behaviors that caused him to feel shame in his formative years to those around him, yet also admits to himself that he doesn’t feel like anyone should be looking up to him is so poignant and true to me. His career path at Northwestern’s fictional art museum is fascinating and added so much depth to the story. In a way, he lived through Nora’s adventurous youth and through some of her old age. His career and the time he spends at the art gallery also represents the reality of living in a world overtaken by AIDS—life goes on, work still happens, and these men had to press on, no matter what was happening in their community.

Equally human and well-written is Fiona. Makkai shows us the aftershocks of being alive and entwined in this world that existed in the 80s and shows us the ripple effect of mass disinterest and political avoidance. Fiona represents every person who ever lost someone they loved to this disease and the emptiness she carries with her changes her life in the most extreme ways. Her journey in Paris is evidence of both her burdens and her desire to lift them enough to fix her own life, and for that reason, the entire book fits together perfectly. Young Fiona reads as a completely different person than the Fiona we meet in Paris, nearly thirty years later. That, too, I think is true to time and to the way many people must have aged after living through Chicago in the 1980s.  

The setting of this book in my home city of Chicago only brought me closer to the story. Anyone who has lived in this city should read The Great Believers and perhaps even read some of the work suggested by Makkai in her acknowledgment at the end of the novel. After putting it down, I have this feeling like I should take a walk to all of these places to pay my respects to the real people who built Boystown and didn’t make it through to see this time, when an HIV diagnosis is not an instant death sentence. The two things I took away from this book really say everything you need to know: One, compassion for those who lived in this time and an awareness of a disease I was largely ignorant of and two, a sense of hopefulness about the way we are heading now, both in medical advancements and in societal acceptance.

Overall? A new favorite and a must-read.

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