Neither this book nor Rebecca Makkai was on my radar but this is the March selection of the ANUW (Association for Northwestern University Women) book club and they have never steered me wrong before. This book club is the reason I read Hillbilly Elegy, Between the World and Me, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and Radium Girls (and if you haven’t read these, add them all to your “to read” pile!
Anyhoo, I digress. The Great Believers was another in the long line of books that I hadn’t hurt of, and was happy to have read. This one has a list of accolades including (deep breath): Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Finalist for the National Book Award, Winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Winner of the ALA Stonewall Award, Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, etc. So, I will not be the first to say this is a very good book.
Like anyone born in the 80s, I was aware of the AIDS epidemic, but I was a little young for it to have a lasting impact on me at the time. I knew about Ryan White of course, and remember rumblings about Reagan but in southern Louisiana we certainly weren’t up in arms about it. This book does an amazing job to put faces and “real” people to the tragedy and relentlessness of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s. Plus, I live in Chicagoland so this book being set in Chicago grounded it even more for me in a setting that I’m familiar with.
Makai jumps back and forth from 2013 to the time of the epidemic and we follow one character, Fiona, who still hasn’t quite picked up the pieces from watching her brother, and his friends, slowly die around her when she was in her 20s. Presently, she is on a quest to try to find her estranged daughter in Paris and her past and present converge, or really, her past was never just in the past. In the 80s we are following Yale, his partner Charlie and there group of friends (including Fiona’s brother and by extension Fiona) as they slowly see this epidemic begin.
Makkai deftly intertwines these stories and spends enough time in each so that both are rich and full narratives that stand up on their own. By jumping back and forth we are also left wondering, until the end, what will happen to Yale. Did he make it? Was he swept up in the wake of this horrible disease?
This was an outstanding book, well-crafted, heart-breaking, and rich with character and plot development. The audio was impeccable but I suspect reading it would have been just as compelling. If you are eager for a good bit of historical fiction, and during this time period looking for something epidemic-y, look no further. In the end, you will see how even in the face of horror, life in the end goes on.