Makkai, Rebecca. “The Great Believers”. Viking, 2018.
Friendship, Redemption and AIDS
Set in 1985, we met Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, who is about to bring in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Just as his career begins to flourish, the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus gets closer and closer to Yale himself and it did not take long before the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.
We move ahead some 30 years and find Fiona in Paris looking for her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. Fiona is staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago AIDS crisis and now she is finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter.
We begin with the stories of Yale and Fiona whose intertwining stories take us into the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both characters struggle to find something good while in the middle of disaster. We read of friendship and redemption in the face of loss and great tragedy. set in 1980s Chicago and Paris.
I am so glad that we are not losing the literature of AIDS and that we seem t have a renaissance in writings about it. We do not ever want to forget what we lost. But let me say that this is an emotional read especially for those of us who lived through the epidemic. Writer Rebecca Makkai asks some very big and important questions about connection and redemption as her story attempts to answer them.
Like the characters here, we start with heartbreak and move toward hope. This is a story about the families we choose and how we feel about the families we are born into. We see how tragic illness changes our lives and how it never leaves those who managed to get through it. Makkai’s well drawn characters struggle with painful pasts yet fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come. Makkai gives us a brilliant look at Chicago and Paris in the 80s and Paris during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. More than a story about the epidemic, this is the story about hope and
resilience that had me on the first page and would not let me go. We forget that AIDS affected us all as it randomly selected its victims and ultimately too something from each of us. The trauma of the early days was filled with anger and love and while it devastated us, it did not destroy us. We were not defeated even in the face of death. We read of young men lost to AIDS and those who survived. “The Great Believers” is funny, scary, tender, devastating, and suspenseful. It was a time that we shall never forget nor can we allow ourselves to forget.
What I love the most about this novel is the brutal and emotional truthfulness with which it was written. Makkai has brilliantly captured the rage and the panic, the ire and the hope of a moment in time during which so much was lost. Not only did I shed tears over the story but also over the beauty of language with which Makkai wrote.