The Great Believers

by Rebecca Makkai

Hardcover, 2018





New York, New York : Viking, [2018]


"A dazzling new novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy and loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, by the acclaimed and award-winning author Rebecca Makkai In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico's funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico's little sister. Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster"--… (more)

Media reviews

...there’s a lot going on in The Great Believers, and while Makkai doesn’t always manage to make all the plates spin perfectly, she remains thoughtful and consistent throughout about the importance of memory and legacy, and the pain that can come with survival.
2 more
Makkai finds surprising resonances across time and experience, offering a timely commentary on the price of memory and the role of art in securing legacies at risk of being lost.
“The Great Believers” offers a grand fusion of the past and the present, the public and the personal. It’s remarkably alive despite all the loss it encompasses. And it’s right on target in addressing how the things that the world throws us feel gratuitously out of step with the lives we think we’re leading.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
“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.”

Chicago, 1985: the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. A group of friends are gathered to remember Nico, who recently died of the disease. It was a scary and confusing time. The virus came seemingly out of nowhere, its impact swift and fatal. Most government institutions, employers, and society as a whole shunned the gay community. With the exception of his younger sister Fiona, Nico’s family deserted him; his friends had to keep their grief private. Yale Tischman was one of Nico’s friends and remained close to Fiona after his death. Yale and his partner Charlie have been together, and monogamous, since before the virus became known, which gives them a sense of security. Yale works for an art gallery and is currently negotiating a complicated bequest of some paintings currently belonging to Fiona’s aunt. But the losses in Yale’s circle are only beginning.

Fast forward to 2015. Fiona runs an AIDS thrift shop and is trying to locate her estranged daughter Claire, believed to be in Paris with her young daughter. While staying with an old friend who had been part of the Chicago gay community 30 years earlier, Fiona begins to process her memories and how those times shaped her and affected her relationship with Claire.

Through alternating chapters, author Rebecca Makkai shows the devastating and far-reaching impact of the AIDS epidemic. She doesn’t hold back; her depiction of the confusion and silence surrounding the disease, the lack of treatment options, and the widespread stigma and fear is both realistic and emotional. While I was completely drawn into this book, I had to set it aside several times to process my feelings. This is a profound novel, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member ablachly
If you want to feel gutted by excellent literature, this is the book for you.
LibraryThing member richardderus

What, I hear you thinking, is wrong with this old man? DNF a five-star read? Five-star a DNF? ::side-eye::

The fact is that I lived this story. I lost the love of my life to AIDS, and attended far too many funerals and memorial services before I was 30. So I really just can't finish the book. I am not up for those wounding memories to be poked with a stick.

The prose is exemplary in its economy and precision, both qualities I admire greatly. Yale came fully into his manhood for me when, on the last page I read, he reflected:
...even if the world wasn't always a good place, he reminded himself that he could trust his perceptions now. Things were so often exactly what they seemed to be.
Precisely, Yale, they so often are and one is always wise to remember that fact. Occam proposed his razor for a reason. It's an incisive (haw) insight.

So while I fully support the praisemongers in their efforts to convince others to read this book, I am not possessed of the emotional horsepower to do it myself. I encourage y'all to take up the challenge and read it, tout de suite, and predict most will come away with a moving and fulfilling experience.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
This brilliant novel is told in two tracks. In one track, it's 2015 and Fiona is heading to Paris to look for her adult daughter who has been "missing" for several years and was recently possibly spotted in You-tube video footage from a bridge along the Seine. In the second track, it's the mid-1980s in Chicago. Yale is a young gay man watching his community rapidly falling victim to the AIDS virus which is still "new" and poorly understood; it is also poorly researched and devastatingly ignored by the American Medical Association and homophobic policy makers. Fiona is also a key character in Yale's story; she is the younger sister of Nico, one of Yale's friends already lost to the virus.

Makkai has done her research. I was living in Illinois in the 1980s and, while I did not live the story told through Yale's eyes very directly, I came out during that time and I was an activist in my university town a couple of hours south of Chicago. She got it right. Breathtakingly, agonizingly right. But beyond that, she tells a beautiful story. It's a story of chosen families and what happens when we manage the disappointment of our given families through bridge-burning. It's the story of maternal love in all its frail varieties and with its awesome power. It's a story of passion -- for friends, for lovers, for art, for justice -- and loyalty to all those same things, and what we will or won't sacrifice in pursuit of passion. It's the story of life's devastating shortness and the tragedy of any length of that life being wasted because of our illusion that it is long. Finally, it's the story of a very real community that experienced a very real tragedy in the latter part of the 20th century, a tragic history that is rarely understood from such an intimate perspective. The final scene is so vivid that I felt it in my gut and nearly wept for its beauty. Brava, Ms. Makkai!
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
4.5 The story opens with the death of a young gay man, named Nico. Disowned by this family for his sexual preference, that is all but his younger sister, Fiona, who is with him until the end. This is her introduction into the gay community, a community that will embrace her as she embraces them. It is the eighties in Chicago, Boys town and the AIDS epidemic is in full swing. We meet many of these young men, so many whose families have cut them loose. See their fear, their sorrow as more die, or find out they have the virus. Fiona, is with many of them, caring for them when they cannot care for themselves. I can't imagine watching everyone you love die, and we see how this affects Fiona in her life a dual story line with the second in 2015 as Fiona searches for her own grown daughter. She finds Richard, a photographer, a survivor from the eighties, and there will be another to survive, a total surprise.. Reminded me a little of A Little Life, the scope, the friends, losing so much.

Maybe because it was set in Chicago, all places I've been, so could imagine this story visually.Belmont Rocks, Lincoln Park and the zoo, Halsted, and Ann Sathers restaurant, one of my favorites in the city. In the Seventies, I hung in Old Town with a group of friends, two were gay, a couple, Jimmy and Max, they were wonderful, don't know what happened to them. I got married, had children, lost touch. I loved this novel, could fully embrace and connect with the story, a story that takes the reader fully into this time period. The political ramifications of a government that was totally unconcerned, a public that turned their heads since this only affected gays, which proved not to be true. The insurance companies, and the way they fought not to pay claims, citing preexisting conditions, so that many died in Cook County hospital. Families, who cut their children off, many never speaking to them again.

We see the other side too, friends banding together, trying to be there for those who had nobody. A mother who stays with her son through this terrible time. So many of these characters we come to know intimately, especially Yale, who is our narrator along with Fiona. Their is a secondary plot in the eighties that concerns Fiona's aunt and some valuable artwork. It was a little drawn out but it does tie into the story and is something Yale is determined to complete. Yale's sees it as a honor to a love that never stopped. Northwestern and DePaul, places Yale works, DePaul a school my youngest daughter graduated from, know it well.

In the present Richard and his photographic exhibit will bring the novel full circle, giving the many who had died, once again a voice. Merging the past with the present.

This was Angela, Esil and my read for March. I liked this one more than they, found it both profound, touching and a story that needed to be told.

ARC from Edelweiss.
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LibraryThing member RitaDragonette
A highly ambitious tour de force. A big, important subject requires an equally significant book and Makkai delivers in spades with The Great Believers. She deftly manages a huge cast of characters, two time lines, a subplot to cleverly entwine both as well as the crash and burn of many relationships, as she spins her complex tale of senseless loss and multi-faceted grief. Having written a novel with many characters myself I’d love to have seen her whiteboard for the plotting of this intricate, yet easy-to-follow story. I came to this novel reluctantly, thinking it would be a heart-wrenching downer, and found myself unable to put it down, madly invested in the fates of the damaged Fiona and the doomed Yale. With The Great Believers Makkai has aimed for the stars, and if here and there she may underline her message a bit broader than necessary, we should all aspire so high. Bravo.… (more)
LibraryThing member froxgirl
My absolute top book of 2018 so far. Two congruent stories of equal heft and quality by an author who not only recounts true life events beautifully, but also delves deeply into the thoughts and actions of her characters. The first plot takes place in mid '80s Boytown, Chicago, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and follows a tight group of friends, a true community, as they struggle through the certain death of their entire cohort. Yale is the main focus, and he is supported by Fiona, whose brother Nico dies as the novel opens. In the second tale, the grown up Fiona seeks her missing daughter Claire in 2015 Paris, where her great aunt Nora was the muse for artists such as Modigliani back in the 1920s, when WW I and the Influenza pandemic was also gutting an entire generation. The connective tissue between the main characters and the endearing minor ones is so strongly drawn that it is almost a miracle to behold, as is the resolution of all the conflicts afflicting Yale, Fiona, Nora, and Claire. Unforgettable.

Quotes: "Asher had a New York accent, and the way he pronounced certain words - coffee, for instance - made Yale want to mouth them in his wake."

"The most ridiculous of Yale's first loves was Clarence Darrow, as portrayed in Inherit The Wind, which he'd read in tenth grade. He'd avoided speaking in class for two whole weeks, terrified his cheeks would redden if he tried to discuss the play."

"To know that someone was longing for you was the world's strongest aphrodisiac."

"The journalist was the kind of woman who seemed entirely made of scarves."

"Ageism is the only self-correcting prejudice, isn't it?"

"I'm not an alcoholic. That was a joke.
How was that funny?
I don't know. I was drunk."

"It's been a long time since I had a day that juts cuts your life in two. Like, this hangnail on my thumb, I had it yesterday. It's the same hangnail, and I'm a completely different person."

"You'll never know anyone's marriage but your own. And even then, you'll only know half of it."

"It had been her failing with Claire all along - pretending not to love her as much as she did. Trying to steel herself against a broken heart, the way she would with a boyfriend."

"The first time she and Damian had gone to couples therapy, the therapist had finally said, "What are you afraid will happen if you open yourself up to him completely?" And Fiona had shouted, "He would die!" It clearly wasn't what the therapist had expected to hear. He hadn't been a very good therapist."

"It's always a matter of waiting for the world to come unraveled. When things hold together, it's always only temporary."

"If we could just be on earth at the same time and same place as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple."
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LibraryThing member Dianekeenoy
This was a very moving story moving between Chicago in the mid '80s during the Aids crisis and Paris in 2015 where Fiona is looking for her missing daughter, Clare. Fiona's brother Nico has died as the novel opens. We are introduced to a close group of friends as they struggle with his death. Then, from there, the Aids crisis that will eventually touch every single one of them. It's hard to put into words just how meaningful this book is, we're so far removed now from how Aids decimated an entire group of people in those dark days. Thank goodness.… (more)
LibraryThing member over.the.edge
The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai

There are two alternative timelines in this exuberant, moving and fascinating novel that explores friendship, trust, AIDS, and love. Such a wonderful rich book, so very hard to read at some points. But so so good!
The story begins in the Mid 1980's in Chicago, with the death of Nico, from AIDS. Abandoned by his family when diagnosed, only his sister supported him and his lifestyle, and was close to him and by his side until his death. Yale Tishman, one of Nico's friends, is a development director for Northwestern University's Briggs Gallery, when he inherits an art collection from the 1920's that include pieces that could be worth millions. But Yale is not sure of their authenticity, a process which takes time and money. Yale and his partner Charlie are going through a rough time and can not agree on their future or how to deal with what the paintings could be worth. Yale and Charlie are watching their friends get sick, living in fear and denial, then disappearing or dying.

The parallel storyline is 30 years later, when Nico's sister, Fiona returns to Chicago to try to find her daughter, who has joined a mysterious cult. Fiona stays with an old friend, Richard Campo, a photographer who grew popular in the 80's photographing this Chicago community affected by AIDS. This stirs memories for Fiona of her brother, and the many friends and lovers that have been lost to the disease, or labelled by it.

"The thing is, the disease itself feels like a judgement. 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 judgement on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, thats almost worse, it's like a judgement 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 judgement on your hubris."

I really fell in love with Yale Tishman, the more I read the more I liked him. His partner, Charlie not so much. I also liked Julian and Fiona and Terrance.

I found this to be amazingly honest and accurate. It successfully takes you to that time period and the community of Chicago, as well as the emotion and environment surrounding this epidemic throughout the country. The politics of a government unconcerned because it was thought to affect only the gay community, turning its head, ignoring the facts. The insurance companies denying coverage because it is considered a pre-existing condition, forcing many to die in hospitals or hospices, as well as on the street. And families who refuse to accept gay members and kick them out on the street (as my parents and family did to me, something you never get over, in many ways.).

This is a book you really should read. It is so good, such a great story, and such wonderful characters. It's shortlisted for the National Book award 2018. Essential reading.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
I had heard this book described as "the best of the year", and while I'm not sure I agree, I see it. This book is amazing and heartbreaking and well-written and just so sad yet somehow hopeful as well.
Alternating chapters follow 2 interconnected timelines. The first, 1985-1990, looks at a friend group of mostly young gay men living/working in Boystown, Chicago, as HIV/AIDS sweeps through the country and their community. Nico, Terrence, Yale, Charlie, Richard, Teddy, Asher, Julian, Nico's sister Fiona, Yale's co-worker Cicely, Fiona and Nico's elderly great aunt Nora--all are trying to figure out how to fight, what to do, how to deal with medical insurance and disapproving parents. The latter timeline, 2015, looks at the survivors of that time and examines how affected their lives, their choices, their careers, their relationships.

I thought Nora was a great character--an elderly woman who lived through the chaos of being in Paris as WWI started, and who fled back to the US, losing her love, her friends, her school, her dreamed-of future. As the older family member to accept her great-nephew Nico, she understood what it meant to be "the arty one", and she gave Nico and Fiona the mental support she could to help them. And her art from that time tied the characters together in 1985/1986. But these chapters are rough. Some are so hopefully, others so painfully sad and difficult.

Then the 2015 chapters are surprising. How the survivors' lives turned out--how the choices they made after the late 80s/early 90s reflected what they went through--but how their later choices affected others who were not even alive, or were children.

These characters are all so well done, they feel like real people. And many of the places and events mentioned were real, or stand-ins for real places, as mentioned in the author's note and Acknowledgments. People who survived Boystown in the 80/90s were some of Makkai's early readers. Makkai does not mention her connection, or how she came to write this book.
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LibraryThing member sblock
I have been recommending this book to anyone who will listen to me, and am just short of stopping people on the street. An incredibly important read for anyone who lived through the AIDS crisis and more importantly, for those who didn't.
LibraryThing member mcelhra
The Great Believers is about a group of gay men in Chicago in the 1980s and how their lives are devastated by the AIDS crisis. It also flashes forward to the present day and the life of Fiona, the sister of Nico, one of the men in the group who succumbed to the disease. She was good friends with all the men in the group and watched a lot of them die one by one. That experience profoundly affected her life and she still grapples with it. At the same time, she’s on a mission to find her adult daughter, who ran away to join a cult.

The main character in the 1980s is Yale. He’s the type of man who is so sweet and kind that it made my heart hurt anytime something even remotely bad happened to him. He works for an art museum and is trying to get an elderly lady to donate her art collection without her greedy relatives interfering.

This book is a sweeping epic with many intricately intertwining threads. The characters were complicated and well-drawn and there were a few surprising twists. The author did extensive research and although the story is fictional, the events surrounding the evolution of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago are real. It’s heartbreaking how horrible victims were treated back then, even by health care professionals. If Rebecca Makkai’s previous novels are even half as wonderful as The Great Believers, then I will gobble them up. The Great Believers is a National Book Award finalist and is on all sorts of best books of 2018 lists. It deserves it all. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
I lost my brother to complications from the AIDS virus in 1993. He was 38 years old and eight years younger than me. It was a harrowing time for my family and one I wouldn’t want to relive so when I heard about this book and its concentration on the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the late 80s I didn’t really think I’d ever read it. It was just too close to home, too much of a return to a traumatic time and just too too hard. But for some reason I kept coming back to it, again and again and when I noticed it on several end of the year Best Books of 2018 lists I thought, why not? Maybe I’ll learn something or maybe it will help to settle something for me.

What I found was a book brimming with both sadness, which I expected, and hope, which surprised me. The young gay men in the story were all ambitious, smart, loving human beings dealing with the horrific loss of their friends and the probability of their own death with admirable courage and grace. The way in which the author depicted these characters makes me wonder if she had some personal connection to someone with AIDS because they were all so well-drawn.

There are two timeframes: 1986-92 and 2015 when Fiona, the sister of the first victim we encounter in the narrative, Nico, goes to Paris in search of her estranged daughter and stays with one of the survivors of the crisis that she knew in Chicago. In doing so she is forced to come to terms with her past and effect the crisis had on her and her ability to establish a good relationship with her daughter, who was born as one of the main characters lays dying in the AIDS ward of the hospital where Fiona’s baby is being born. As she looks back on her life the realization of the power the AIDS crisis had on her becomes apparent.

Powerful, important and compassionate I think this is a book everyone should read.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Oh, well, there's another box of tissues I'll never see again...

I had some misgivings about this book, despite the good things other people have said - I wasn't really keen to go back to all that emotional trauma, and I didn't altogether like the idea of belonging to a generation that has become the subject of historical fiction, but I was curious to see what a young writer could find to say about the AIDS crisis with the advantage of thirty years of hindsight.

The answer seems to be: not all that much. Makkai's heart is clearly in the right place, and she's a competent, if rather long-winded, storyteller, but in the parts of the story where she's talking about what it was like to be in the middle of the Chicago gay community with your friends dying all around you, it's just as though you're back in a slightly more generic version of a 1980s novel by Edmund White, Paul Monette, David Feinberg, or one of the many others who wrote about that time from the front line. It works, and it was quite moving to read it, but it didn't give me any sort of lightbulb moment. What can there be to say that hasn't already been said? The real story of AIDS, seen in the longer perspective, should surely be the many millions of people still affected by the disease in Africa and elsewhere, a point Makkai buries in a single brief passing mention. However much the early casualties in the gay community affected us personally, when we look back now we have to see them as only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

I should say that there were some unfortunate editing slip-ups in the early part of the book that probably prejudiced me against it from the start. One sentence that is going to haunt me for the rest of my life is "They sat in Denver Airport with bags under their eyes."
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LibraryThing member quirkylibrarian
Back and forth between the 1980's AIDS crisis in Chicago and 2015 Paris where Fiona (sister to one of the AIDS victims and a caregiver to his friends as they died) searches for her estranged daughter. Against the backdrop of Yale's acquisition of a private art collection for the university gallery, a collection held by an elderly woman in Door County, WI whose grandniece, Fiona is a central character- to Yale, to the dying men in the gay community etc. The AIDS crisis is its own character in this gorgeous, slower paced novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookappeal
Makkai immerses readers into a culture many may not understand. The lives of homosexual men in Chicago's Boystown just as the AIDS epidemic was taking hold proves to be fertile ground for exploring friendship, love, loyalty, fear, and trust. A contemporary plot follows Fiona, whose older brother died from AIDS, as she tries to find her estranged adult daughter in France. A third storyline revolves around an ailing older woman in 1986 who wants to bequeath potentially valuable paintings to an upstart museum. The three stories don't converge so much as illuminate each other and the characters. A character-driven, literary but accessible novel that stirs many emotions but none so beautifully as grief and hope.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
There are times when you finish a book, but the characters stay with you. Makkai's writing made me feel the pain of each character. Amazing novel! Makes me wish I could go to Chicago in the 80s and hang out with Yale and Fiona.
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This book was on the shortlist for the 2018 National Book Award. Although the subject of the AIDS crisis in Chicago in 1985 is a difficult read, this book is worth the effort. The book alternates between 1985-92 and 2015. The main characters are Fiona at 20 year old in 85 whose brother Nico has just died from Aids. The other main character is her close friend Yale a gay man who was a close friend of her brother. The 2015 story revolves around Fiona in Paris looking for her estranged 27 daughter Claire. Although the 2015 story was not as compelling as the Chicago story it was important in tying the whole book together. Being from Chicago and having spent a few months in Paris it made the story even better for me. Makkai does not use extensive layered prose but she tells a great story with interesting characters. It is important to remember how badly the AIDS crisis was handled by the public, the government, doctors, and the insurance industry. Reading the book told through Yale and Fiona allowed me to look at the impact AIDS has had on both the victims and the families. In Fiona's case the impact of grief carried over to her relationship with her daughter. The book also deals with a subplot surrounding the donation of an art collection in 1985 by Fiona's 90 year old great aunt. Even though we have done a better job of acceptance of the LGBT community, this book's portrayal of rejections by family of their gay friends and families reminds us what is was like when the crisis began. A definite worthwhile read. I will definitely check out her other books.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pmaurer
Not a part of the culture that I understand. I was interested in the artistic slant the book blurb promised, and stopped listening after the first tape when it didn't show up.
LibraryThing member detailmuse
This novel of friendship and tragedy is set in 1980s/'90s Chicago at the height of the AIDS crisis. It follows Yale Tishman (a development director for an art museum) and his group of gay friends, and alternates threads with the sister of one of those young men, following her decades later in 2015 Paris (whose story I did not connect with until very late in the book). It’s compelling and important, a sort of homage. It’s exactly the time that I moved to Chicago as a newlywed, and become acquainted with an artist who had a gallery in the neighborhood of the novel, and who died of AIDS. It felt like being in that time again and I have been bereft since reading.

The last sentences of the novel won’t mean much (and probably won't spoil for those who haven’t read it yet), but they’re the saddest sweetest sentences I’ve read in a long time and I want to save them for myself:
She expected the film to end right there, but instead, … the whole film looped again. There they all stood, … boys with hands in pockets, waiting for everything to begin.
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LibraryThing member eembooks
A novel about the AIDS epidemic in the Chicago gay population with a side story chasing a lost daughter in Paris 30 years later. While I didn’t think the book was riveting still liked it very much even though kept wondering about the accuracy of a straight women chronicling gay behavior in the 1980’s.
LibraryThing member kayanelson
This was a great book and really made me think how hard it must be to be an author. The characters were so well developed and I felt like I really new them and wanted to be their friend and part of their group. I especially liked Yale. Then the plot going back and forth from the 80's to the naughts kept it interesting also. And it pulled together well also without feeling contrived. I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member ChristopherSwann
4.5 stars. This one drew me in slowly, and I spent the last two nights staying up far too late so I could finish it.
LibraryThing member streamsong
87. [The Great Believers] - [[Rebecca Makkai]] - 2019 – library

In 1985 in Chicago, Yale at last found a home. It was a time and place when he could be openly gay; enjoying the company and support of other gay men and the comfort of his partner, Charlie. His job, working as a director in an art museum was yielding fruit.

But it was also the time that AIDS began to rear its evil head. At first, a man would have a mild cough. It was then followed by devastated wasting into a living skeleton and inevitable death. It acquired a name and then a test to determine if one was HIV positive or negative. But the test itself was a political thing – could one end up on a government list from taking it? And since there was no cure, was there a point to taking the test? Especially if you believed your partner had never strayed.

The storyline also bounces into Paris in the current time frame with Nina doggedly trying to search out her daughter. Nina had been the sister of one of the men who died early on; she was friends with her brother’s friends and became caretaker to several as they lost their fights with the disease.

But the deaths extracted a toll not only on her, but her family.

This is a stunning portrait of a horrific time; the after effects of hidden war, the collateral victims and relatives of victims.

I thought the writing was brilliant. I deeply cared about characters, and like the characters themselves, I was stunned at the twists and turns fate doled out to them.

It is one of the very few books that the last pages reduced me to tears.

5 stars
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai, author; Michael Crouch, narrator
This novel alternates between the past in the 1980’s and pretty much the present, in 2015. In the traumatic early 80’s, there was a large scale outbreak of AIDS in the gay community. AIDS was already surging in Africa. Now it was decimating a once thriving small neighborhood in Chicago. The backlash against those infected was huge. Their behavior was blamed as fear swept the country and they were not considered worthy of saving. They were left mostly to their own devices as they suffered and died in cities all over the United States. As it spread into the larger community of straight men and women, who were considered less expendable, it became a more urgent concern to find a cure or a treatment. Makkai puts the reader in Chicago’s Boystown, where the gay community lived, loved, played, suffered, and died.
In the 1980’s, Yale lived with his partner, Charlie. They had both tested virus free, but their friend Niko was now infected and dying. His young, teenage sister Fiona was his main support after he was thrown out of his home. Yale and Fiona were very close friends. Together, they illuminate the tragedy of AIDS as their anxieties and experiences are illustrated with emotional and intellectual authenticity.
When Fiona’s Great Aunt Nora wanted to donate art work to a museum where it would be displayed, Fiona suggested Yale to her. He was fundraising for a gallery he had started in conjunction with Northwestern University. Cecily was the woman involved with planned giving at Northwestern University. Together she and Yale visited Nora to learn about her art collection. Cecily had a young son, an 11 year old, named Kurt.
When the novel goes some three decades into the future, to 2015, the reader finds an older Fiona in Paris, crashing at her friend Richard’s house. He is an artist who happily lives with his partner Serge. The times have changed, and they have become more open to gay relationships and marriages. Fiona had grown up. She had a daughter, named Claire who had not contacted her for three years. She had gone to Paris to hire a private detective to search for Claire. She believed she was in Paris. Fiona had recently learned that Claire might have had a child of her own. Was Fiona a grandmother? Claire had never told her. Several years prior, Claire had run away and married Cecily’s son, Kurt, who was much older than she was. Together, they had joined a cult. Shortly after she makes contact with Claire, there is a terrorist attack in Paris, near the area where Claire lived.
Meanwhile, back in the 1980’s, Yale is exploring the art collection of Fiona’s Great Aunt to see if it is of any value. When he decides to accept the donation to the museum and Nora’s terms, the reader learns of Nora’s past. Nora’s relationship with famous artists and her description of her experiences during the war years enhances the book. There will be a common theme of trauma during the war years that parallels both the trauma of the Aids epidemic and the trauma of the terrorism in Paris. Another common theme is the study of the word attack. AIDS victims suffer attacks of illness. Soldiers suffer attacks during the war. Terrorists attack innocent people in Paris. All of the victims are to one degree or another unfairly marked! Another common theme is art. Yale is fundraising for an art gallery. Nora wants to donate her art collection. Richard is soon to have a reception in his honor at the Pompidou.
The author truly captured the atmosphere of the times and the way of life that was shared by those who contracted and suffered from this dreaded disease. She illustrated the feelings and concerns of those who became caregivers to those infected with the virus. She accurately presented the shared concerns of those who were related to, or who were friends of victims or soon-to-be victims. Some, in the gay community refused to be tested to see if they carried the virus. They were on tenterhooks. It was a death sentence, and they did not want to know until they had symptoms. Still, that meant they might spread it to others, since it was spread through bodily fluids. Drug addicts who shared needles, bisexual married men, and surgical procedures in hospitals, all placed others at risk as they might be carriers or spreaders of the disease.
The author has captured the souls of the men who were vulnerable and shared their varied attitudes toward life and the disease. She has gently written of their love and their plight in a way that is not offensive, but rather, it exposes the brutal way that they were treated, before and after the epidemic. There was little compassion for their fear, pain and loneliness as they were spurned by almost everyone who feared the spread of the infection to themselves. Makkai described the public’s reaction to the disease and the thoughts of those afflicted, with perfection.
I lived through that time with friends who were stricken, and I know that they were avoided like the plague, as were those who visited with them. The parents of those infected, suffered in many ways. It was at that time, that there was not only the shame borne by the gay child, but there was shame of having a gay child. It was thought that the parent must have done something to cause the alternate sexual preference. Then, coupled with that pain, they had the further, far worse pain of watching their child suffer the awful indignities of the disease which was torturing and killing them. The public was unkind. The disease was unknown. It was a death sentence and it created widespread, and often, irrational fear. Watching those involved with the cleaning of apartments after victims died, watching first aid workers helping victims of accidents and cleaning up the scene, watching hospital employees, doctors and nurses in hazmat suits, did not create a vision of safety or confidence. Aids began in a community that was shunned because of its sexual practices. It took years for the public and the government to intervene and provide the funds for the research into a treatment and/or cure for it. It had hit a marginal, largely unaccepted community of men and women, first. It was on the bottom of the list of priorities. The victims often lost their jobs and their health insurance. It was a terrible time, and the author has described the emotions and fears of those affected, as well as those who feared infection.
The book is about devastating loss, remorse, deceit, and suffering, as well as loyalty, compassion and devotion. It is about the long term effect of trauma. Fiona feared that if she loved someone openly, they would die, because everyone around her that she loved seemed to be dying. Yale becomes aware of all the little things he would miss doing or the things he could never do again. Still, when an old friend, Julian, thought to have died of the disease, suddenly makes an appearance near the end, the reader realizes that it is no longer a death sentence, there is hope. There is a recipe of drugs that holds the virus down and does not let it develop. Today, the victims survive.
I was a bit put off by author’s political statement as she attacks the need for health care as a right and has the characters loudly condemn the Republicans and President Reagan for not doing enough to stop the crisis created by the dreaded disease. She writes about protests that, in fact, did take place, and finally brought about some change. So perhaps, the remarks were necessary. I also found the timeline confusing at times as it took me awhile to realize that the Kurt in the 1980’s, was the same Kurt that grew up and then married his friend Fiona’s young daughter, Claire. In the end, all of the pieces of the story were knitted together in perfect order! I highly recommend it, even though it is dark at times.
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