Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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“This disease has magnified all our mistakes. Some stupid thing you did when you were nineteen, the one time you weren’t careful. And it turns out that was the most important day of your life.”

Our first introduction in the book, is to a group of friends, who are all gay attending the funeral of their friend, Nico. The AIDS epidemic has just started but it is at the point where no one had figured out what was going on yet besides just knowing that gay men were dying in droves not long after finding lesions on their bodies. The year is 1986 and the book alternates between 1986 to the early 90’s in Chicago and present day in Paris.

“It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.”

In the 1986/90’s part of the book, the story is being told from the point of view of Yale, a director for an art gallery,  who is in a relationship with Charlie. Yale is trying to juggle a lot of things in his life – his relationship with Charlie, who is quite insecure and constantly worries about Yale leaving him, watching his friends die one by one and swirling in a world of fear and morbidity and trying to get the coup of his career by securing a sought after painting from the 1920’s for his gallery.

“Fiona didn’t look satisfied with the answer. But then she hadn’t understood, either, why Yale had put up with Charlie so long. She’d figure it out herself, sooner or later—the way a person could change, and yet you couldn’t let go of your initial conception. How the man who was once perfect for you could become trapped inside a stranger”

The present day narrative is told from the point of view of Fiona, Nico’s younger sister. At the time of his death, Nico’s family had not fully embraced his being gay so Fiona, only 21 took on the responsibility of taking care of him and even gave up college. Being like a  baby sister to all the guys in the group, this also made her the point person as they each got sick. In the present day, Fiona is now in her 50’s, divorced and in Paris, searching for her daughter who she has never got along with and who has just left a cult. While searching for her daughter, she also faces her ghosts from the pasts that she has been carrying all these years.

“But when someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory—letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I had so much love for him, even if it was a complicated love, and where is all that love supposed to go? He was gone, so it couldn’t change, it couldn’t turn to indifference. I was stuck with all that love.”

As morbid as this book sounds, I really enjoyed it. A part of why I enjoy reading is how it exposes you to a life and a world that you would probably never experience. I cannot imagine what it was like living during the AIDS crisis. I truly cannot. I don’t know what it would feel like to constantly being tested, being afraid to be intimate with someone, not knowing if you will catch a disease that no one knows about, being treated like a leper and not even getting the best of care, your leaders doing nothing and remember a lot of these people didn’t have supportive families.

“I’ve been down that road. The thing is, if you stop blaming people and everything’s still crap, the only thing left is to blame the world. And when you blame the whole world, when it seems like the planet doesn’t want you, and if there’s a God, he hates you—that’s worse than hating yourself. It is.”

A lot of the book was about facing demons, facing mortality, facing choices made in life and how your world can be changed in a second. All the different story plots did share the common theme of the importance of preserving a memory. At the end of the day, when we are all dead and gone, we are reduced to just a memory. Sometimes the memory haunts and sometimes it is a pleasant reminder.

“If you had to choose when, in the timeline of the earth, you got to live—wouldn’t you choose the end? You haven’t missed anything, then. You die in 1920, you miss rock and roll. You die in 1600, you miss Mozart. Right? I mean, the horrors pile up, too, but no one wants to die before the end of the story.”

Alternating between timelines can be a tricky thing but Makkai does a great job of handling the two time periods and their stories. I will admit that I really could have done without Yale’s pursuit of the art and Fiona looking for her daughter. I could never quite figure out why her daughter seemed to hate her.

“…even if the world wasn’t always a good place, he reminded himself that he could trust his perceptions now. Things were so often exactly what they seemed to be”

Once again, the premise of the book really makes it seem like a history lesson, but I think you should give it a chance if you can and think more about what could be learned. Like other past grievances that have happened in history, I think this is one that should be remembered. Also, there are many other parts of the book that are fun. Some of my favorite parts are the friendship and dynamics the guys had with each other. The passion they had for their careers. I enjoyed Yale’s introspection on his life given all that was going on around him. And Fiona thinking back on her choices in life. This is a book that had all the hype in 2018 and actually deserved it.

“He said, “Everyone knows how short life is. Fiona and I know it especially. But no one ever talks about how long it is.”


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