Life is beautiful. Life is terrible. Life is blind and unforgiving. Rebecca Makkai delves deeply into what it means to be alive, what it means to feel like the last person alive, and what it means to leave someone behind and keep living in her latest novel The Great Believers.
Told from a dual perspective, Makkai sets one storyline in Chicago during the AIDS epidemic in the early nineteen eighties, paralleling this narrative with a continuation of the story in 2015 Paris. Yale is the main character on the Chicago scene, a man in his late 20s living both a dream and a nightmare he never thought possible. The story begins with Yale attending the funeral of one of his best friends, Nico; the first of many funerals to come. Yale’s friends it seems are disappearing, literally disappearing into themselves as they are ravaged by diseases so uncommon, so debilitating and rampant, that there’s hardly anything left of the friends he knew.
AIDS has hit Chicago, and Yale, a gay man living in Boystown is learning just what that means. But Yale is safe, he and the love of his life, Charlie, have gotten tested. They don’t have it. They’re safe. He hopes.
In 2015, Fiona, Nico’s sister, is desperately trying to find her daughter. Fiona, whose seen so many die, whose lost so many to an unknown emptiness, has somehow lost her daughter too, a daughter she knows (she hopes) is alive in Paris. Fiona spent her youth caring for Nico and his friends in Chicago, acting as their saviors, their families, their friends. While in Paris, Fiona finds herself at battle with the ghosts from this past: a past so dredged in love and hatred that she can’t separate it from the present; a past that haunts her and her daughter, someone who hardly lived through its darkness; a past that reminds Fiona over and over again that no one has really “survived” it, there’s too much left that’s broken.
Running beside Yale and Fiona is an unsuspecting character, a character that spans all time and space, that stands for social justice, inequity, and everything in between: art. Art features prominently as both a source of remembrance and a way to be forgotten in the histories that follow.
Makkai tells a compelling and absolutely necessary story with The Great Believers, one that asks questions about the meaning of life, love, and art. Beautifully told and impossibly true on levels much deeper than the plot (which Makkai based on real events but which are in fact entirely fictional), The Great Believers is a book no one should miss.
Released by Viking in June of 2018, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is available for purchase at your local bookstore.
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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.