Book Review – The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

This book has been longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award and in my opinion as an avid reader, I completely understand why.

This book has alternating timelines and storylines where we follow one protagonist, Yale Tishman, from 1985 to 1992.  Fiona’s story, the other protagonist, intersects Yale’s story and weaves back and forth in time from 1985 to 2015.

We first meet these characters at Fiona’s brother’s funeral.  Nico was a victim of the AIDS epidemic and one of the first in Yale’s group of friends to contract and die from the virus.  In 1985 there is a lot of misinformation about AIDS and a lot of homophobia.  Nico’s parents insisted that he die in a hospital that they were comfortable with but it was a horrible experience for Nico and his friends.  Medical staff didn’t want to touch Nico, they didn’t want Nico’s “gay friends” at his bedside and this just added to the depth of grief and trauma that his friends and Fiona experienced.

The story continues with Yale, the development director of a Chicago art gallery, who is trying to obtain a private donor’s collection of art painted in 1920’s Paris.  While the donor specifically has requested that this art be given to the gallery, her family is obstructive to Yale’s efforts because of course, they would like to get their hands on the collection as part of their inheritance.  While Yale maneuvers to obtain the collection, at the same time his life continues to be turned upside down when friend after friend receives the news that they have tested positive for the virus.

The other story that the reader keeps returning to is set more in the present day with Nico’s sister, Fiona.  She spent about eight to ten years deep in the AIDS crisis helping to nurse and support not only her brother, Nico, but also his friends when they started to get sick and die.  By the time her brother’s last friend passes in 1992, she is shell shocked from the grief and has just given birth to her own child, Claire.  In her 2016 storyline, she is in Paris looking for Claire, with whom she is estranged.  Claire disappeared into a cult a few years earlier and recently Fiona has received information that her daughter is now living in Paris and has a little girl of her own.  Fiona stays with Richard, an old friend of Nico’s that has managed to stay healthy and she hires a detective to help her locate her daughter and granddaughter.

I am giving this book five stars.  While I think that Fiona’s storyline at times was a bit weak, I still loved the book and I think the author did a brilliant job in conveying what the early days of the AIDS crisis was really like including the lack of knowledge on the part of the medical profession, misinformation about the disease and the isolation that AIDS victims felt.

I believe that this book will resonate with anyone who was in their 20’s and 30’s during the 1980s and early 1990s AIDS crisis before funding was allocated for research and medication. So many gay men died without family by their side because either they were still “in the closet” or they were estranged because their family didn’t agree with their lifestyle.  Even more died not only without family but also friends because by the time they got ill, they were the last of their group of friends to die.  To this day, approximately one million people die from AIDS each year and 35.4 million have died from AIDS related diseases.

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