The Great Believers

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 28 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

A devastatingly haunting view into the Aids crisis of the 1980s; set in Chicago,  Well written and engaging.
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This book is sharp and devastating. Feelings were felt, emotions were emoted. A highlight of 2018 for its visceral depiction of an American tragedy.
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I got about halfway through but it was SLOW. I really, really wanted to read it but it just dragged. I did not finish.
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In this compelling novel, Rebecca Makkai documents the story of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980's.  Her version is set in Chicago.  Yale is the development director for an art galley associated with a college.  Fiona is the little sister of Nico, one of the first of the group of gay friends to die and she is considered everyone's little sister.  Yale is in a committed relationship with Charlie and he is about to score the coup of his career.  Fiona has mentioned him to her great aunt who is dying.  The aunt lived in Paris in her youth, in the 1920's and knew and modeled for many of the great artists of that time.  She wants to donate her collection so that it can finally be seen, and Yale quickly realizes that this donation will make his career as it is more important than anyone expected. 

But all is not well.  In his extended group, men start to get sick and then die.  Soon the disease is hitting those close to him and the group learns the grim statistics and the curve of dying.  Friendships are tested and families are often not ready to face the fact that this disease not only kills but exposes the gay lifestyle at a time when it was not readily accepted except in the large cities such as Chicago where this novel is set.

The book alternates chapters between the 1980's in Chicago and modern day Paris.  Fiona is now a middle-aged woman and has come to Paris to attempt to find her estranged daughter and perhaps a granddaughter which she has heard rumors of.  She arrives in time to be exposed to the terrorist attacks.  Being there makes her think back to the days in Chicago and all the losses she knew then.  But there is still hope in her life.

This book received a lot of attention.  It was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of the 10 Best Books Of The Year for the New York Times as well as other awards.   Readers who are older will be instantly transported back to remember those times and how the virus exploded into consciousness and how afraid the average person was of the disease and those who got it.  Readers who are younger will get a real appreciation for this mind-changing event and how it was a defining issue for gay men in particular.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.
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The Great Believers is about a group of gay men in Chicago in the 1980s and how their lives are devastated by the AIDS crisis. It also flashes forward to the present day and the life of Fiona, the sister of Nico, one of the men in the group who succumbed to the disease. She was good friends with all the men in the group and watched a lot of them die one by one. That experience profoundly affected her life and she still grapples with it. At the same time, she’s on a mission to find her adult daughter, who ran away to join a cult.

The main character in the 1980s is Yale. He’s the type of man who is so sweet and kind that it made my heart hurt anytime something even remotely bad happened to him. He works for an art museum and is trying to get an elderly lady to donate her art collection without her greedy relatives interfering.

This book is a sweeping epic with many intricately intertwining threads. The characters were complicated and well-drawn and there were a few surprising twists. The author did extensive research and although the story is fictional, the events surrounding the evolution of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago are real. It’s heartbreaking how horrible victims were treated back then, even by health care professionals. If Rebecca Makkai’s previous novels are even half as wonderful as The Great Believers, then I will gobble them up. The Great Believers is a National Book Award finalist and is on all sorts of best books of 2018 lists. It deserves it all. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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One of my favorites of the year. It was so satisfying to have two narrators describe the same events from their different time periods, and interesting to get to explore how time and perspective can have a big impact on perception.
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I missed Rebecca Makkai's remarkable third novel The Great Believers (Penguin, digital galley) when it came out in June. But on a recent weekend I was transported by this chronicle of the fallout of the AIDS epidemic told in two intertwining narratives, one from 1985 Chicago, the second in Paris 30 years later. Now I can't stop caring about Makkai's characters, both those whose lives were cut short and those who survived and loved them. Absent friends, a lost generation. Thanks to whoever first put this on their best list. Now it's on mine.
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I really enjoyed this novel - but I’m not sure who I’d recommend  it too. We live in such a conservative city, our clientele is mostly older ladies. There are a lot of kinda graphic gay sex scenes, just enough to make me hesitate before globally recommending this. But I thought it was such a compelling story. I’ll come back and add the link to my review once it posts.
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I just finished Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers, and I cannot wait to recommend it to friends and family as well as customers. The writing is gorgeous, the characters endearing, and the plot heart-wrenching but hopeful. The book certainly deserves the National Book Award nomination. Its depth will stay with me for eternity.
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Thoroughly enjoyed this tightly written novel following the same characters over two timelines, decades apart.
The novel does a great job covering the AIDS crisis on a personal and political level, and also shows how deeply families can separate, and how difficult it is to restore that separation. There were times I grew weary with the two timelines, mainly because I was wishing we could have seen more of the mother and daughter when their lives were together since this separation was crucial to the novel, and surely had more to do with the mother seeming aloof and depressed and the daughter obsessed with a cult to find family.   We knew way more about the men in the novel than these two women.
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Woah - I think this might be the best book I've read all year. While I have always been aware of the AIDS crisis, having grown up in the 80s, I never really understood how things actually happened. This book fills in those gaps in a powerful way - bringing right into 1980s Chicago gay community and wrenching your heart out one diagnosis at a time. Told in alternating times and narrators, it takes a good while for the two stories to come together, but its worth the wait. Do yourself a favor and read this.

I received this as an ARC from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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Striking, haunting, I'll think of this one for days. Multiple layers across decades leaving the question: if someone leaves your life prematurely, versus sticking with you towards a bitter end, how does your perception of them change? Thankks for the ARC, Netgalley
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Affecting and engrossing, this brave novel by Makkai does an impressive job of evoking the emotional scope and impact of The AIDS crisis of the late 1980s in Chicago. As she acknowledges, this isn’t wholly her story to tell. Yet she does ‘her best’, and it’s a fine best, large and thoughtful and fully stocked with characters. Split between two central characters and time zones, the book is at its strongest in the earlier period, pursuing the personal, professional and ultimately physical trials of Yale. Fiona’s story, in Paris, some decades later, is more solipsistic and a little dreary. Nevertheless this is a big book with a heart to match.
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Yale Tishman is at a turning point in his career. If he can get a group of paintings donated to his Chicago gallery, it will be his biggest success yet. But his personal life is not as hopeful--his friends are dying from AIDS and no one knows how to grieve or who will be the next to be diagnosed. He finds comfort in the unlikely friendship of his friend Nico's younger sister Fiona. Thirty years later, Fiona is desperately searching Paris for her daughter. She thought Claire was lost to a cult, but now she will do anything to reconnect with her daughter and try to make amends for the ways she failed her.

I've been intrigued by Rebecca Makkai's writing for a long time. Not every story of hers works for me, but she weaves some kind of literary magic that makes me willing to try again. With this book, she has written herself into a tough situation because every book about a group of gay friends finds itself compared to the devastating A Little Life. The wonderful news is that this book holds its own--there is a perfect balance here between a specific moment in time and the intimate details of any person's life.

Both Yale and Fiona are incredibly invested in what is happening around them, as friends, relatives, and lovers are dying from AIDS. They show how life continues in spite of loss and tragedy, because there are fights with family and you still have to make that appointment and get to work on time. But there is a specter hanging over everyday life as characters wonder if a cough is just a cough or feeling tired means that something insidious is inside your body. The costs are more than physical--there is immense pressure on the ones left behind, the ones who say goodbye over and over again and must keep the memories of their friends alive.

In my reading lately, I'm finding many good books where I am excited to keep reading, anxious to find out what happens to the characters, and invited into another time and place by careful writing. But the books that stand out for me are the ones that are just enough--the author takes us into someone's life and knows when to close the curtain and force us to go back out into the world. The Great Believers is one of those stories. I spent the perfect amount of time with Yale and Fiona and I grew to care for them. Now I am ready to leave them behind and return to my own life, prepared to be a bit kinder and pay attention a bit more because our time with the people we love is a finite gift.

The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking June 2018
432 pages
Read via Netgalley
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Dear Rebecca Makkai,

The Great Believers is your fourth book, but somehow it's the first one I read. I found this fact to be particularly confounding considering your debut novel, The Borrower, is about a librarian taking a road trip. That premise is completely perfect for me, a librarian who loves road trips and all kinds of travel (well, except camping and exploring nature, but I digress.) But, somehow, it's languished on my TBR like so many other wonderful books.

I'm so glad I picked up The Great Believers. The premise is ambitious: "In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, his friend Nico's little sister.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster."

I'm not sure where my fascination of the AIDS crisis stems from. Part of it, I imagine, is my age. I was born in 1980, so I came of age and awareness on the tail end of it. As an adult, I've found myself drawn to the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the AIDS crisis and the gay revolution. Despite that, reading The Great Believers made me realize how many of those stories are centered in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was refreshing to see this time explored in Chicago.

I'm particularly glad I read this book in 2018, a year where things too often feel hopeless. Yale and his friends are prescient reminders of both how far we've come and how far we still have to go. They reminded me that a lot changes in thirty years: "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.” As I read, I was grateful this novel had two storylines, both because it helped break up the hardest times in 1985, but also because they were both so good. I never preferred one storyline to the other, which is a remarkable feat of storytelling and pacing on your part.

One of the highest compliments I can give a book is telling you it made me ugly cry more than once. The Great Believers broke my hearts with its beauty, tragedy, and humanity.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 431 pages
Publication date:  June 19, 2018
Source: publisher

My favorite passage:  “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. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle. I just want to say that.”
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THE GREAT BELIEVERS by local author Rebecca Makkai is one of the most well-written books that I have read this year. Quite a bit of the novel is set in 1980s Chicago with references to Boystown, the gay pride parade, and views on the escalating AIDS "crisis" from those who were directly impacted. Makkai excels at building compassion and empathy for her characters: Yale Tishman works for the fictional Brigg Gallery at Northwestern University and his partner, Charlie Keene, is owner/editor of the gay publication, Out Loud Chicago. Initially readers are drawn to their shared grief for Nico, a friend who has contracted AIDS and died. Nico's younger sister, Fiona, is very supportive and reappears (with several other characters who have survived) when the story shifts to 2015 Paris. In addition, readers meet Nico's great aunt Nora and learn about her life as an artist's muse in WWI era Paris. There are so many themes and avenues to explore – fidelity, mortality, the meaning of family, value of art, ethics, prejudice, loss, love and friendship. THE GREAT BELIEVERS was recommended by the Bookstall as an outstanding book group selection – more on that and book groups in general in an upcoming post – and here is a link to the publisher's discussion guide:

In reflecting on her work, Makkai said, "It is my great hope that that this book will lead the curious to read direct, personal accounts of the AIDS crisis – and that any places where I've gotten the details wrong might inspire people to tell their own stories." THE GREAT BELIEVERS received well-deserved starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. Mark your calendars: Rebecca Makkai will be at The Book Stall in Winnetka this Fall (tentative date is Sept. 11).
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Loved this! Favorite book of the year so far.

Thank you to Viking and NetGalley for the advanced copy.
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Thank you to Net Galley for giving me an advance copy of this book. This is in the running to be the best book I read this year and has already gone onto my greatest books ever list. 

The Great Believers follows Yale, a gay man in 1983, and Fiona, a friend of his searching for her daughter in 2015. The way every character in this book is developed makes them so totally believable, I almost miss them as if they were my friends. This book tackles the AIDs crisis in the 1980s and I found myself sobbing on the subway as I tore through this book to get top the next chapter. The alternating perspectives is done beautifully. This book will be remembered as a masterpiece and I will be following the author's work to see what she has in store for the future!
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To say this book is terrific is an understatement, beautiful, haunting, moving, heartbreaking but also in the end uplifting. The characters that are navigating Chicago during the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 80's are so alive that they will haunt you long after you have finished the book. Really brilliant.
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There should be more than five stars available for this novel. "The Great Believers" is so engrossing, so moving, that I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is my favorite book this year.

Part of the novel is set in Chicago in the 1980s, and the other part is set in present day Paris. The thread that connects the two is Fiona, the sister of Nico, whose funeral opens the story. Only 20, Fiona  stuck by Nico when their parents rejected him for being gay, and nursed him  until his death from AIDS. Nico was much beloved by his circle of friends and those friends will become more and more dependent on Fiona as a ally and support as the disease destroys them one by one. She's especially close to Yale, development director for a museum. Through Fiona, Yale has discovered a trove of drawings from 1920s Paris, What seems like a tasty subplot becomes pivotal to the story.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris trying to find the daughter who had vanished into a cult. She's staying with a friend from the Chicago days who is opening a huge retrospective of his photography. 

THIS is how setting a book in different time periods should work. Each part illuminates the other in a masterful way. Makkai creates suspense, raises new questions, makes surprising connections and lays bare the tragedy. Who survives? What's happened in Fiona's life that her daughter chose a cult? 

You'll be gripped from the first page. This is a novel to read and reread with great pleasure.
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