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Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (4/5)

8 Jun

I picked this book up at a store in Atlanta, GA when I was traveling. It was listed as a selection for one of the store’s book clubs and the accolades on the cover convinced me it was worth picking up. I read the first chapter on that trip but it’s been almost a year and I started over when I got into it this time. I thought the first chapter was a little lost from the story when I first got back to it and almost wished I’d skipped over it again. But that scene came back again and again and became a very pivotal moment in the story so I’m glad I revisited it. It’s a testament to Makkai’s storytelling skills.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

I wasn’t ready for the emotion of this book. It really took hold of me and I was hooked for the ride. Yale was an amazing character and I kept wishing the whole time that things would be OK for him and the AIDS epidemic would somehow pass him and his friends by, or at least not become worse. I was less vested in Fiona’s story if only because Claire’s estrangement from Fiona seemed loosely defined and not as exciting. Yale’s adventure seemed more present even though it was set in the 80s.

The Boys’ Town characters were amazing and well crafted. A few blended together for me, specifically Asher, and Julian, but a lot of them were vivid and memorable. I loved how even though the entire story takes place after Nico’s death, he’s one of the most present characters throughout the novel. His death has sparked so much in these people’s lives and it stays with Fiona well into her adulthood. Charlie was so easy to imagine and I feel like I’ve met Richard before. I wondered how much of this book was based on experience Makkai had and how much she poured herself into Fiona.

Yale was my favorite character. I loved how he was ‘hopelessly preppy’ and so sweet to everyone. We only see him get honestly mad twice in the book despite everything that happens to him and his friends. He’s a very honest person and he’s someone I would want to be friends with but would probably not have a lot in common with me but be too polite to say anything about it. His devotion to Charlie was admirable. I’m glad he and Fiona became such close friends because he needed her and she was there for him.

Yale’s devotion to his job was something I related to. I recently had a conversation with my husband about how much energy I devote to my job and I was reading this book at the time and didn’t think my dedication was too different from Yale’s. I don’t travel much for work, but I do think about my job and the people it touches a lot when I’m not working. How much Yale worried about the art and the valuation of it struck close to home.

Rebecca Makkai
Image via the author’s website

I loved the subplot with Nora and her art. I thought Yale’s devotion and distraction by this was very telling of his personality. He cared as much about Nora as he did about the art. He cared a lot about people and that’s what made him so sweet and likable. When things in his personal life weren’t going well, he threw himself into his job as a way of distracting himself from what was upsetting and I know I’ve done that so I could relate to him. I loved that his dedication to Nora lasted the entire novel, it was a very sweet friendship that they developed.

Fiona’s modern plotline didn’t do much for me. Her search for Clarie seemed odd. If someone doesn’t want to be found, why do you think looking for them will suddenly spark a relationship? It seemed odd to me that Claire agreed to talk to her mother at all and that was one part of the novel that I didn’t believe. I read an interview with Makkai that she added this section later. I think it did well to draw out the mystery of what happened in Chicago, but it didn’t help me get more into the novel. It actually made me skeptical of Fiona’s character in the 80s plotline.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Michael Crouch and I thought he did a wonderful job with it. His voice was great for Yale and it didn’t strike me as odd when he narrated Fiona’s story. He had a different voice for female characters but it didn’t come off as rude in any way.

Friendship is very important in this novel. Many of the men were abandoned by their families and had to become their own support system. The number of them who signed the power of attorney to Fiona was amazing to me. But it was also justified by how Fiona treated these friends and how close she was to all of them in such a tough time. Their stories are beautiful. The story of the march for health care equality seems to strike me more reading it during protests over police brutality in America right now.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m often struck by stories about things that happened before I was born but were not taught in school. If you think about it, you probably didn’t learn much about what happened in the world in the 20 years before you were born. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that our parents and teachers lived through it and either forget that we didn’t or it’s too painful for them to talk about yet. I was born in 1990 so the mid- to late-eighties isn’t a time I learned a lot about. This is the second book I’ve read that focused on the AIDS epidemic (the other was South of Broad by Pat Conroy) and I’m struck by it in fiction and how I never knew much about it before. Makkai did a great job of teaching me while I was being entertained by her writing.

A masterful book and one I really enjoyed. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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