The Great Believers

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 28 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

Author Rebecca Makkai has such amazing ideas for books that I always want to read them and inevitably think about them long afterwards.  While I’m reading them, however, I don’t find them particularly engaging and I struggle to determine why.  I don’t know why after reading THE GREAT BELIEVERS any more than I did after both times of reading THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE. The plot is a study of contrasts of love relationships: a man-woman, two men, a mother-child, and a mother-grandchild.  It is a study of the loss of that love relationship through war, illness, anger, depression, distance, and misunderstanding.  It is finally a study of the passage of time on our understanding of love:  how it grows or whithers under time’s ceaseless motion.  So, all of that is fascinating;  it is how she spins tales to get at that, where she often loses me.  Because she goes on too long or meanders when she could have cut some passages off.  And often, I just don’t much like her characters, try as I might.  But her ideas, wow.  She is a master at thinking up fascinating ideas. I love her ideas and can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.   I received my copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
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A thought-provoking, intelligently written and intense third novel from Rebecca Makkai. Entwining the stories of two friends set in two different eras, The Great Believers packs an emotional punch by showing its characters as real, complex people and looking at the effects of the AIDS crisis in devastating detail. I did think it was perhaps a little overlong and could have been pruned in places, but overall I really enjoyed this novel and will recommend to fans of City On Fire, Life After Life and Tell The Wolves I'm Home.
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I absolutely loved this book. One story-line is set in 1980's Chicago, centering around a group of gay men dealing with the AIDS crisis as well as their own personal lives, relationships, and challenges. The book opens with one of our narrators, Yale, attending the memorial service for his friend Nico who has just died of AIDS. Nico's sister, Fiona, is our other narrator, whose story-line takes place in Paris in 2015. The characters felt complex and flawed in very real ways. Their love for each other, their heartbreaks and their regrets, gave this book so much emotional potency. I couldn't put it down. This novel completely wrecked me. I've already ordered a copy for my library and I'll be buying myself a print copy as well. Thanks to the publisher for providing an advanced copy for review.
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The protagonists of Rebecca Makkai’s terrifyingly sad novel, The Great Believers, Fiona and Yale, are trapped by love and obligation. In 1985, Yale is living through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago. His friends and dying all around him while he and his lover worry about catching the virus. In 2015, Fiona is tracking down her estranged daughter, who disappeared after leaving a cult. Both of them desperately want to love someone who can’t love them back. The stakes in 2015 are different from those in 1985 and I often wondered why the 2015 chapters were included. It wasn’t until near the end that I saw the echoes and similarities between the two plots make sense. When they did, I was floored by the emotional impact of Yale and Fiona’s story.

Chicago-based Yale believes he and his partner, Charlie, are relatively safe from HIV/AIDS because they’re monogamous. It’s a cold comfort given how many of their friends and former lovers are dying terrible deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. In 1985, before there was any kind of treatment, all they could do was comfort the dying and try to keep themselves safe. Unfortunately, Yale discovers that Charlie has cheated on him and that Charlie has HIV. This should have been a great year for Yale, in spite of everything, since he has just started negotiating the donation of previously unknown art by Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne, Tsuguharu Foujita, and Chaim Soutine for a new gallery at Northwestern University. This donation could have made his career, but it gets mired in legal fighting at the same time as Yale’s life is falling apart.

Meanwhile, in the Paris of 2015, Fiona is trying to find her daughter Claire. (The Great Believers opens with a funeral for a man named Nico, who is Fiona’s brother.) We slowly learn more about how Fiona took care of so many of her dying friends in Chicago after her brother died. Though she was so caring of others, Claire ran fast and far from Fiona as soon as she could. All Fiona wants (and all Yale wanted) was to be loved by the people they love. For some reason, their love wasn’t enough for Charlie or Claire. Makkai’s characters are not pitiful victims of unrequited love. The more time we spend with them, the more I sympathized with them, hoping that they could learn to let those loves go and find some other happiness.

One of the ideas that comes up several times in The Great Believers struck me hard. The donor of the paintings tells Yale the story of artists who were lost in World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic. She leads him to imagine all the life and art that was lost when several of the artists died. She reminds Yale that they were called the Lost Generation, because they were so cut off from what had come before and because some many people had died. Yale is also a member of a Lost Generation: the people who died of AIDS and AIDS-related diseases by the thousands in the 1980s. What might life be like now if they were alive now? What might they have created if they’d lived?

This is a sad book, but it’s also a book about struggle. Yale and his fellow gay men are not going quietly. Towards the end of the book, Yale becomes an actively protesting member of ACT UP. Fiona hires a detective and flies to Europe to find her daughter, just to make sure Claire is safe. It’s also about staying alive longer, claiming your space and defending it; art; who owns what; and much more. It’s a slow book, but it will reward patient readers with a lot of food for thought and a wallop of an ending that blends hope and sorrow.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.
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Writing: 3 Characters: 4 Plot: 4

In this epic novel of lives dismantled by the AIDS epidemic, the action bounces between the gay community in Chicago circa 1985, modern day Paris, and Bohemian Paris on the brink of WWI. There are strong themes of blame, shame, and redemption and good insights into human feeling and behavior in the midst of wide-spread tragedy.  The loosely linked narrative streams each elaborate on the impact (both obvious and unrecognized) of large scale bereavement on both survivors and the world at large. 

I learned a lot from this book and found the messages powerful, but it was a slog and it did not need to be.  The narratives were way too long with little gems of insight buried in lengthy, repetitive, and sometimes irrelevant, prose.  The author uses perpetual angst to move the plot forward leaving the reader wrung out by the end. While one could argue this is the right state for the subject, it’s wearing to have it drawn out to such length. 

The two main threads - Chicago in 1985 and Paris in 2015 - are really two completely separate stories with only a thin strand of connective tissue.  In 1985, Yale Tishman, a young gay man, works to acquire a valuable donation for his new gallery while simultaneously watching his community splinter, fight, panic, and finally succumb as AIDS strikes.  In 2015, Fiona, a middle aged woman who was a close friend of Yale’s and whose brother Nico was one of the earliest AIDS victims, searches for the adult daughter (and possible granddaughter) who has intentionally withdrawn from Fiona’s life. Although Fiona features in both, I felt the 2015 story line offered little to the main themes of the book and feel it could have been left out altogether. The themes are really outlined in the 1985 story as well as embedded tale of the art donor, Fiona’s Great Aunt Nora, who feels those going through the AIDS crisis are the only ones who understand what she went through in WWI. She compares the many deaths from WWI (in her youth) to those from AIDS (current)  and laments not only that so many friends are gone, but that they never got to live and accomplish.  In a beautiful passage she brings to life all the art that never happened because these people died and the tragedy resulting from the fact that we didn’t even know enough to miss it. 
On the whole I believe this book is worth reading, especially if you’re interested in a well-researched, detailed story about the devastating impact of AIDS on real, fully drawn people, but be prepared to work a little harder than you should.
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