The Great Believers
Updated: Mar 30
I have never read anything quite like The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. The novel follows dual timelines, 1980's Chicago and 2015 Paris, and alternates between two character storylines that intertwine and wrap together beautifully in the end. The Great Believers follows Yale Tishman and Fiona as they navigate Chicago in the early 1980's at the height of the AIDS epidemic and Fiona's quest to find her estranged daughter in Paris during 2015. The book begins somberly with one of Yale's good friends and Fiona's older brother, Nico, passing away tragically from AIDS. The stigma of AIDS, lack of education and government support, coupled with the medical industry's lack of knowledge regarding how to treat AIDS, gave anyone with a positive diagnosis a death sentence. It is truly hard to imagine all of your friends contracting the same virus and passing away horrifically, one by one, while no one bats an eye and gives it the attention it deserves. And to think of the guilt you would feel if you were someone who avoided testing positive, while your friends died, and the constant fear that you could contract it. Makkai's writing brought this terrible time in history to life and invoked so many emotions, it is hard to comprehend this really happened.
Makkai's character development with Yale was outstanding. I felt so invested in his story and my heart broke for him over and over. Yale works as the director for the art gallery at Northwestern University and he is contacted by Fiona's elderly aunt, who informs him that she has several one of kind pieces of artwork from famous 1920's artists, from when she lived in Paris. Yale is ecstatic about the possibility of acquiring these priceless pieces of art for the university. If they are the real deal, like Fiona's aunt says they are, not only will they be worth millions, but Yale will be a part of history by bringing them to the gallery for all to enjoy. His story follows his quest through acquiring these pieces of art, as well as how he navigates his relationships with his friends and significant other, and the landscape AIDS left on Chicago.
I rooted for Yale throughout the entire book and grew to love him. Makkai's writing is so deep that her characters jump off the pages. Fiona was a tougher character to love and connect with until the end. She felt guarded, but for good reason. Fiona was in her early 20's when she spent time with her brother Nico and his friends. She took care of Nico when their parents kicked him out of the house and became a surrogate mother and sister to all of his friends. Fiona cared for Nico on his death bed, as well as many of her other friends. Of course she is guarded and keeps people at a distance, she watched everyone she ever loved and cared about pass away from a cruel and painful disease. Fiona associates getting close with someone and loving them, with heartbreak, because that is all she knows. Fiona keeps a wall up and it begins to crumble down as she searches for her estranged daughter and her story begins to make more sense as well. I grew to really love her towards the end of the book.
The dual storylines with different timelines keeps the book moving at a quick pace. The risk with dual storylines is that a reader might prefer one over the other, but I felt like I enjoyed both. It helped break up some of Yale's story to go into Fiona during present day, and vice versa. It also helped me understand Fiona more as Yale's story progressed. I thought Makkai did a beautiful job with both perspectives in The Great Believers.
Overall, I rated The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai ★★★★.5 stars. The writing was gorgeous, the story was heartbreaking, and the characters were outstanding. I have never read anything quite like The Great Believers and my eyes were opened to a crisis that I did not know much about. My mind has been expanded with knowledge greater than myself and given me a new perspective and compassion for something that before I knew little about. The world can be a cold and dark place and books like The Great Believers bring that front and center, but with a literary twist that leaves the reader thinking well beyond the last page. I really enjoyed this read and highly recommend it if you are into literary fiction that is based on real events.