Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Yale lay on the couch that night, listening as Terrance tossed in his sheets, as he whimpered through his night sweats. Yale closes eyes and watched himself, the night of the memorial, from high up on Richard’s house near the skylight. He watch himself talk to Fiona, talk to Julian, sip his Cuba Libre. Again and again he watched himself take in the beginning of the slideshow, then turn and put his foot on the first step. He watched himself climb the stairs.

A sweeping tale of love and family in times of crisis, The Great Believers follows the men of Chicago’s Boystown through the 1980’s AIDS crisis and tracks the ways trauma ripples through generations making itself known in the most unexpected places. Chapters alternate between two narrators, Yale, a young gay man in the midst of an epidemic that is rapidly killing his friends and making the very act of love something to fear, and Fiona the sister of Nico, one recently deceased of their group. Spanning 30 years we come to know Fiona as an adult as she searches for her estranged daughter and tries to rebuild the family she so desperately craves. Through these loosely connected narratives we come to understand that love and loss are each felt with a similar degree of depth regardless of their iteration.

Lately he’d had two parallel mental lists going-the donor list and the sick list. The people who might donate art or money, and the friends who might get sick; the big donors, the ones whose names you never forget, the friends he’d already lost. But they weren’t close friends, the lost ones, until tonight.

We first meet Yale and his partner Charlie at the wake of their friend Nico and it is this moment that serves as the cornerstone for the series of events that change Yale forever. It is here that he realizes the seriousness of this disease as it begins to infiltrate the boundaries of his close-knit group. Yale, faced by such a threat on his mortality, chooses to spend his time attempting to find meaning through the love he shares with Charlie and the potential for success as the financial curator for a up-and-coming art gallery. However, both prove to be onerous tasks and as disappointment and betrayal rock Yale to the core we see the desperation and resilience of his generation.

Diverging from the same point in time, Fiona’s life is forever changed by the death of her olde brother and by the epidemic that chipped away at her circle of friend, each one a reminder of her brother, while she stood by caring for them and nursing them in their final days. In 2015 we are reunited with Fiona as she clambers through the streets of Paris in search of her daughter, Claire, eager to create new memories with the family she still has, though she is forever haunted by the loss of her youth.

There were five of them, sometimes six or seven, living in one room above a bar on Broadway. Almost all of them teenagers. She found out only years later, as Nico was dying, that some of them had been hustling, Nico had a job bagging groceries, and between that money and not Nora’s money, and a few dollars Fiona managed to sneak him (she’d steal change all week to pay for her train tickets, give him what was left), he managed to stay off the streets. At least this is what he maintained to the end. She didn’t imagine he tell her, though, because then she would have felt it was her fault, that she hadn’t done enough, that’s when she was only a kid doing all she could.

Through her search, Fiona is reunited with Richard Campo, a famed photographer and one of the few from their shared group to survive the AIDS crisis. Surrounded by his stories and photograph-some featuring young men that has nearly been lost to her memory and others she would never forget-Fiona is forced to reconcile with her past and to feel again all the hurt and emotion each death drained from her. As she reminisces, the two stories begin to converge into a compelling finale. Both heartrending and hopeful, The Great Believers serves to remind readers of the fragility of life, the importance of love and the bouncy of a generation of young men and their families that were ravaged by disease and failed by their country.

How could she explained that the city was a graveyard? That they were walking everyday through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they step through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?

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A review copy of this title was provided by Viking Books

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