Happy Pride month, y’all! Our library has a wonderful little feature display of LGBT+ books, and go figure, the last thing I just returned ended up immediately on it, as well as this book here being something that could easily be featured on it. And a great book it is, in my opinion! If, perhaps, quite an emotional one, given the often difficult-but-important subject matter. And I wanted to read something like this right now as I parse through some complicated personal feelings regarding Pride this year; well, it’s a lot to get into and here is maybe not the place, but what I will say is that we cannot lose the history and importance of said history when understanding where we are now and how we understand other peoples’ experiences, etc.
The Great Believers is a story split into two timeframes: one in the 1980s-1990s follows a young man named Yale, living in Chicago and grappling with the realities of the AIDS epidemic, as it begins to affect his world and his friends in an increasingly direct manner. The first of his close friends, Nico, has just passed away, and Nico’s sister, Fiona, becomes intrinsically involved in Yale’s life. It is then Fiona who takes center stage for the second timeframe of the novel, in 2015, as she searches for an estranged daughter, but works through how her experiences during the AIDS crisis has affected her life and relationships up to this point.
This is a story of hope and longing, of wishes and regrets and loss and the ghosts of those who left us behind. I have not read anything else by Rebecca Makkai as of yet, but am certainly interested in her other works now as the prose is concise and not overly decorative, but also not without feeling; in fact, there is a lot of feeling in this novel, and our complicated emotions that make things both beautiful and so difficult are truly center stage throughout the story. There is great sorrow, but also sparks of joy and the things that make us want to hold on so preciously to life, and you can tell that great care was taken in weaving the threads and emotions of the novel.
If I had to say something that didn’t work for me here, it would be that the flipping back and forth of the stories worked well in some areas, but not in others. The Fiona storyline almost seemed second-place in terms of importance, and her sections would be very brief at times in-between more substantial sections of Yale’s story, making it seem like they were just thrown in there to keep the one-then-the-other pattern going. Or you’d get so drawn into the section of the narrative for one timeline, only to then be shoved back out of it at the next break. I mean, it’s not terrible, and ultimately the style worked well overall, but it did leave a little feeling of lag at times.
However, overall The Great Believers was a churning and eloquent read about a history (and it’s aftermath) that I have not seen depicted or understood nearly as much as it could be. I highly recommend, and while I would say it’s more of a 4.5/5 stars for me, I’m going to round up in the spirit of June.