Rebecca Makkai tells two intertwined stories in The Great Believers. One starts in 1980s Chicago, the other in 2015 Paris. Held within are the lives of two friends, Yale and Fiona, along with many others.
In the mid-1980s, the world was just beginning to understand AIDS. It was still considered to be a disease that only gay men “caught.” The discrimination, shame, and fear were horrible. But even worse was the communities of friends that became decimated by death. There was no effective treatment, although doctors tried mightily and patients endured as long they could.
Yale’s friend Nico was one of the first of their group to fall. His sister, Fiona, nursed him through the last months, despite being just a teen. She became tight friends with Nico’s buddies, a group of gay men from diverse backgrounds who were all living in a Chicago neighborhood dubbed Boystown.
Makkai tells Yale’s story in alternating chapters with Fiona’s story in nearly current-day Paris. Now a mother, Fiona is trying to track her twenty-something daughter down after losing touch. Claire was living in a cult, and rejected her parents. Now Fiona thinks Claire may be free, and wants to reconnect.
And, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Neither Yale nor Fiona have straightforward lives, which makes for an engaging novel.
The Great Believers grabs you by the heart, pumping blood, sweat, and tears out before it’s done. Rebecca Makkai draws the main characters with precision and care. She reminds us of the concurrence of life and death—the circle of life.
I was more moved by the 1980s story line than the more present day one. While they both had elements that touched me, it was Yale’s story that hurt my heart.
In it, Makkai humanizes the people, often very young, who died from AIDS before today’s treatment regimes were developed. People living with HIV AIDS were fighting the insurance companies, the government, the prejudice of neighbors, and most importantly, the virus. It was a tremendous battle. Their friends and family had no choice but to continue on without them, living with the grief for decades.
The Great Believers will remind you that life is simultaneously short as a moment, and long as eternity. Because, after all, love is love.