I first saw The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 List. I was convinced that it was worth reading by the glowing reviews and the many awards–it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Award finalist. However, I wasn’t sure this was a book I would enjoy reading. The cover and the title don’t give much away. The blurb just said it was about 1980’s Chicago during the AIDS epidemic and the art scene in Paris in 2015. None of those topics really grab me. I was too young to really know about or understand what was happening with AIDS in the 1980’s, and I thought reading about it now would be depressing. I was afraid this would be one of those well-written books that is a struggle for me to read. So that’s why it took me until 2020 to finally get around to it.
And I am so glad I did. I was not expecting to get so sucked into the characters and their lives. I think this may turn out to be one of my favorite books of the year. The book begins with Yale and his boyfriend Charlie heading to a memorial for their friend, Nico, who has just died of AIDS. Nico’s partner and gay friends were not welcome at his funeral, even though they were his support system and his chosen family. So, instead they were celebrating his life at a friend’s house, Richard Campo.
The chapters alternate between Chicago in the 1980’s and 2015. In 2015, Fiona, Nico’s sister is on a plane to Paris in an attempt to find her daughter, Claire. It takes most of the book to learn why Claire is in Paris, why Fiona knows she’s in Paris, and why Fiona is desperate to find her. Fiona is staying with her old friend, Richard Campo, who is now a famous, successful photographer living in Paris.
This book doesn’t really follow an expected narrative. There are many characters, and like in our lives, some big ones fall out, while other peripheral characters become more important. Yale, however, is a man we follow throughout the book. He and Charlie are lucky enough to have recently tested negative. Charlie is an outspoken editor of a gay Chicago weekly while Yale works for Northwestern in development for a new Art Gallery. I was unexpectedly drawn into Yale’s life when Fiona’s great aunt wants to donate some famous never-before-seen art that she obtained when she was a model in Paris right after the war. Fiona’s son doesn’t even understand how much it’s worth, but he detests Yale and wants to keep the art for himself. It was definitely some good family drama as well as a love story from the past.
I don’t want to get into any more plot details, but I will say I was at first more interested in the 1980’s story than the 2015 Paris story. I don’t think that ever really changed, but I appreciated what was happening in 2015 and how it connected to the past the more I read. This jumping around in time and seeing Fiona at two very different points in her life reminded me of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Seeing Fiona as the rebellious 20-year-old young woman, angrily shunning her parents and taking care of her tribe, and then seeing her as the 50-year-old woman looking for her daughter was striking. She was so different, but still obviously shaped by the events in her past.
This book was a wonderful surprise. I felt like I was back in Chicago, living through the fear and devastation with the characters. I loved it. Highly recommended.
Yale and Fiona do eventually become the main characters of this novel. Fiona is the one who stays and the one who survives, taking on the burden of everyone else’s suffering and death. It affects her ability to love later in life. But I think Yale’s story made me even sadder. He’s busy living his life, safe in the knowledge of his negative test, focused on obtaining the art from Fiona’s great aunt when his whole life is turned upside down. It turns out that Charlie was cheating on him, exposing him to AIDS, even though he was the poster boy for using condoms. Makkai gives hints of this in the beginning of the book, so I saw it coming, but it was still devastating.
But Yale’s life continues in unexpected ways. Yale doesn’t make it in the end, but when he knows he’s dying he makes the sweetest and romantic connection to Asher, a lawyer friend of his. They only kiss once and hold hands walking down the street, but knowing what could have been is both unbearably sweet and heartbreaking. And even their one moment together on the street, already overshadowed by their sickness and impending separation, is battered by a homophobe yelling at them. Asher refuses to let go of Yale’s hand, and they pretend they don’t hear him.
“[B]ut Yale was busy wondering if this was the governing factor of his life: the fear of getting his heart broken. Or rather, the need to protect the remaining scraps of his heart, the ones torn smaller by every breakup, every failure, every funeral, every day on earth.” (52)
“Julian turned and gave him a sad, beautiful smile. ‘Can you imagine the party? When they cure it?'” (104)
“This disease has magnified all our mistakes. Some stupid thing you did when you were nineteen, and the one time you weren’t careful. And it turns out that was the most important day of your life.” (196)
“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.” (317)
“It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.” (318)
“I think that’s the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love. Not hatred, but the failure of love.” (353)
“If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not.” (401)
“Legislation of health care is still based on subconscious (or even conscious) prejudices about who deserves to live and who doesn’t.” (Readers Guide 421)
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.