Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers was heartbreaking, but so good and very worth reading.  I realize that reading a book about the AIDS crisis in the 80s isn’t a light read, but I feel like it’s really important to understand.  It’s also a book for anyone who likes a long, layered, multi-generational story.

Makkai tells this story from two different times and two different perspectives.  The story begins in mid-1980’s Chicago, with a young man named Nico’s death from AIDS.  Yale Tishman, a good friend of Nico’s, is working in fundraising at a university art gallery.  He’s in a long-term relationship with Charlie, and both are terrified as their friends are increasingly diagnosed with the disease.  Thirty years later, Nico’s sister Fiona is an adult in her 50’s; she’s trying to track down her estranged daughter Claire.   

What I know about the AIDS crisis isn’t much.  I was a teenager during the worst of it, and pretty self-absorbed.  A few years later I lived in San Francisco, but though I fell in love with the Tales of the City books and had friends who were gay, what I knew of the disease was only what I saw in the news.  I’m realizing how much I didn’t understand about the hate and fear and discrimination that was our country’s reaction to the crisis.  And how many people were impacted.

“The thing is,” Teddy said, “the disease itself feels like a judgment. We’ve all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.

What I love about good historical fiction is how it brings to life and personalizes events we can’t possibly understand any other way.  This book does exactly that.

I loved everything about Yale, and seeing this story through his eyes was devastating.  Makkai focuses on the emotional effects that AIDS had on the gay community, and on a whole generation’s ideas about youth, relationships, and sex.  She also writes about the realities of access to health care, medications priced above what anyone could afford, and the limited rights of gay couples to have loved ones by their side in the hospital.  It’s hard to read.  But I really appreciated Makkai’s writing because I never found it over the top melodramatic, despite the subject matter.  It’s a quiet, thoughtful book with really well-developed characters. And it’s brought that time vividly to life for me, in a way I won’t forget.

Last year I read Less, and heard author Andrew Sean Greer speak about his book.  He read and discussed a passage where he talked about how his generation didn’t know any older gay men, because they had all died.  A whole generation.  

As with many books that tell a story in two parallel times, the modern day story is a little less engrossing, though I liked Fiona and I liked the way Makkai lets her and Yale’s story slowly unwind and intertwine.  I was interested in the long-term effects that this crisis had on her, a straight woman who cared for many of the victims of AIDS.  I think Makkai wanted to show how many people were touched by the AIDS crisis.  And yet I was glad it was Yale, not Fiona, that took center stage in this book.  

This book won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for fiction and was a National Book Award finalist. It’s a beautiful, powerful, and devastating book that I highly recommend.  

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