The Great Believers

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 28 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

Genre:	        General Fiction
Publisher:	Penguin Group Viking
Pub. Date:	June 19, 2018	

Death is everywhere in this novel.  This is because the author, Rebecca Makkai, wrote about the 1980s AIDS outbreak epidemic.  The novel is set in the heart of Chicago in an area known as Boystown.   There are two storylines, told in alternating chapters: one is in the 1980s and the other is in present time.  The book opens in the past.  We meet a close-knit group of gay men attending a “celebration of life” party after the death of one of their own.  Across town, the actual funeral is going on in a Catholic church.  Since the parents didn’t invite their deceased son’s lover to the funeral the friends have their own sort-of-service for him.  The whole gang is at this party including his straight, younger sister.  She disowns her parents and family the way they disowned her older brother.  Her brothers’ friends adore her.  She often says that she has/had 100 older brothers.  In the present, the little sister is now a middle-aged woman searching for her estranged daughter, who may or may not have joined a cult.  She has the help of one last brother who survived the epidemic.  He is now in his eighties.  I smiled when they first laid eyes on each other for the first time in many years.  They each had the exact same thought—how can he/she be so old?

The author does a good job describing the terror of the early years of the virus.  The kid sister watches her “brothers” die one by one.   You might cry because you will grow fond of these men.    Some have big personalities.  Others have sweet and shy ways.  They come from all walks of life, and the author makes sure you get to know each character as if you met them personally.   If you do not cry, you will still feel the heartbreak of the times.  The agony of making the decision to take the test, waiting on the test results, waiting for the symptoms, and then waiting for a horrendous death.  Makkai also shows the emotional scars on the lives of survivors.  The sister has had a life of depression, which of course affected her adult relationships as well as her mothering skills.  The author is so passionate on the subject of HIV/AIDS that it came as no surprise to learn that the disease has touched someone in her life.   

The story is good, but not on the level of “The Boys in the Band.”   “Believers” reads similar to “The Philadelphia Story,” you will cry, but you are aware that the author is manipulating your heartstrings.  My only issue in the novel is in the present when the focus is on the sister’s search for her daughter.  This extra plot wasn’t needed.  It reads like a private detective tale that in no way could compete with the superior story told while in the past Overall, this is a well written, ambitious historical novel of a horrible time in America when very few Americans felt compassion for those who were locked in the jaws of the disease.  It wasn’t uncommon to hear that God sent this disease to punish the immoral.  It was the gay men’s isolation (no one would even physically touch them) that hit me the hardest.  They only had each other.  This is a huge-hearted novel.  And, although it is a story is about death, once completed, you will have a stronger sense of life.
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{My Thoughts}
What Worked For Me
Gorgeous Writing – Everything about Rebecca Makkai’s writing in The Great Believers stood out to me. It was poetic, sympathetic, filled with raw emotion and compassion. It was pure pleasure to read her words, even when it was through tears.

“He wanted to tell Teresa she’d taken him to the wrong place, that this withered fetus on the bed was no one he knew. But Teresa was stroking the man’s scalp, and when the man’s mouth hung open, Yale saw Charlie’s teeth. He was an alien, an Auschwitz skeleton, a baby bird fallen from its nest. Yale’s mind kept reaching for metaphors, because the simple fact of it – that this was Charlie – was too much.”

Vivid Characters – The Great Believers is a big story and Makkai populated it with a large cast of rich characters, starting with Yale and Fiona. From the very start I was drawn to Yale because he was so real, so human. As his professional life took off, his personal life crumbled in ways most of us will be lucky enough never to experience. He was an open book, easy to relate to. Fiona was a bit more of a mystery, but as her parts of the story began to unfold the reasons for her remoteness became clear. Sometimes with a book that has many secondary characters it can be easy to get them confused, but that never happened in The Great Believers. Every character had his/her own personality and quirks, letting you love some and loathe others.

“AIDS Crisis” – Those of us old enough to remember when the “AIDS crisis” rocked the world in the 1980’s, will appreciate the authenticity Makkai brought to her book. Who can forget how night after night the story dominated the news? How fear and hatred dictated too many people’s actions? How men were dying in unheard of numbers? Yale kept two lists in his head: one of potential donors for the museum he worked for and the other was the “sick list.” The Great Believers covers all this and more from inside the Chicago gay community. The historical part of this historical fiction was spot on and when reading the author’s notes at the end it was clear why.

“And how could she answer? They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand that it was a ghost, it was a boy that the world had spat out?”

Intertwining Timelines – I tend to like dual timeline stories, but this one was especially well done. At first is seemed like the two stories were far, far apart, but chapter by chapter each began to reveal more about the other until they quite beautifully met up.

What Didn’t
Long Winded Parts – There were just a couple spots in this book that got a little slow and perhaps could have been shortened. For me, these had to do with Yale’s work with Nora, an older woman set on making a large donation to the museum he worked for. They weren’t long enough to break up the flow of the book, but I was always eager to get back to Fiona and Yale.

{The Final Assessment}
Quite simply, I adored The Great Believers and cannot recommend it HIGHLY enough. For me it had everything: vivid characters living in a devastating era of modern history, a bit of mystery, wonderful locales, and most of all heart. This book has a lot of heart! 

Note: I received a copy of this book from Viking (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.
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As appears on

I was excited to receive a copy of The Great Believers just a few days ago (thus it wasn’t included in my Summer 2018 ARC List!).  It’s a thought-provoking reflection on relationships, how they change and grow over time, what they can survive and what they can’t, with the 1980s Chicago AIDS crisis at the center of it all.  Two seemingly unconnected characters are tied together through their relationship to one person, Nico, who has passed away when The Great Believers opens, and through the art world their stories become surprisingly related.  It just about broke my heart into a million pieces.

The Great Believers smoothly transitions between two stories, the first being Yale’s point-of-view in 1985 Chicago, as he begins to see AIDS affecting his life with the death of his mutual friend Nico and slowly says goodbye to everyone he loves; we also visit Fiona, Nico’s sister, in 2015 Paris, as she struggles to come to terms with her life and her relationship with her daughter.  Each section ended on a little cliff-hanger and then the story would return to the other time period, so I always wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen.  I truly became invested in the characters and was interested in their lives, which is one of my favorite things about reading and made this book memorable for me.

The Great Believers is a sweeping, heart-wrenching story about love, loss, and identity.  As it deals with such a tough topic, I wouldn’t call it an “enjoyable” book, but it’s well-written and well-researched with memorable characters and two interconnected stories.  Reading it now during Pride Month will make it all the more powerful.
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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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