Jo’s Pick of the Week: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

“They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?”
–From The Great Believers

I worked in a Chicago suburban newsroom when the AIDS crisis hit the headlines in the 1980s and 90s. I remember the fear and anxiety that captured the nation over this baffling disease that didn’t have a cure. Hospitals didn’t want to treat AIDS patients, who often were abandoned by their biological families. Celebrities started dying from AIDS-related illnesses, including actor Rock Hudson, singer Freddie Mercury and tennis pro Arthur Ashe. In 1994, AIDS became the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25-44.

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai brilliantly captures this time of anxiety and heartbreak in Chicago and the aftermath in her fourth book, The Great Believers. This remarkable novel has deservedly been listed as a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Makkai tackles the crisis head on, starting in 1985, when a group of gay friends gathers to mourn Nico, who succumbed to the disease. They all face a terrifying illness that at the time was usually a death sentence. Who will live? Who will die? The men are joined by Nico’s sister, Fiona, who is estranged from her parents after they deserted her beloved brother.

The book alternates between two main characters, over two time periods. The story during the AIDS crisis is told through the eyes of the endearing Yale Tishman, who is hired by Northwestern University to help establish an art gallery. He becomes distracted from the project when he learns his partner, Charlie, is not who he appears to be. The story then moves to 2015, where Fiona is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire. Fiona, now in her 50s, is still haunted from witnessing the death of her brother and so many friends. This mental strain lead to the estrangement of her daughter, who always felt ignored by her mother. When Fiona gets a lead that Claire might be in Paris, she goes to find her, and stays with one of her brother’s old friends.

Makkai tells a riveting story about friendship, love and loss that comes full circle in the end to a satisfying conclusion. I cared about her characters, whose fates moved me deeply. I highly recommend this powerful, beautifully written novel.

Hear Rebecca Makkai talk about her new novel when she comes to Cook Memorial Public Library at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23. Register here.

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