Chicago is the third largest city in the US and we rarely associate it with the AIDs epidemic, yet, the city and its people were deeply impacted by the then mysterious and untreatable, deadly disease. Rebecca Makkai set the story, The Great Believers in her beloved hometown and takes us through overwhelmingly emotional times as we witness deep friendships, brotherly camaraderie, romantic and platonic love, unwavering support and devastating depression and loss.
It is 1985 Chicago, and Yale Tishman, the Director of Development at the new art gallery at Northwestern University is working on an exciting and valuable acquisition. His career in the art world is taking off at the same time AIDs has reared its’ ugly head and sadly, Yale loses his best friend Nico. Then, one after another his other friends and acquaintances are getting sick and dying. Yale tries to be a good friend to others as he grapples with his life and this dangerous disease that is making his social circle smaller and smaller. Nico’s loyal younger sister, Fiona is all he has left of his tight little community and they both struggle with the fears they face and the losses they have experienced.
Author Rebecca Makkai alternates back and forth in time and jumping ahead, in 2015, Fiona goes to Paris in search of her daughter, who has run away and joined a cult. Their relationship is estranged and at best strained. During her search, Fiona stays with an artistic friend from her youth who has documented the 1980s AIDs crisis through art and has a show scheduled in Paris during her stay. Time in France gives Fiona opportunity to try and deal with the trauma of her past, the loss of her brother and his friends, and understand how it has affected her relationship with her daughter.
Makkai has developed complete and complex characters that I feel like I know and truly care about. Her writing evokes overwhelming emotion and I love how the two time periods are weaved together through her compelling storytelling. Some people compare this book to A Little Life, and yes, both are gut wrenching and sad, but in The Great Believers there is a well researched overview of Chicago history and AIDs in the 1980s, a window into the art world, terrorism in 2015 Paris, so much love, friendship and family…a much warmer novel that combines the burden of memories with hope and positivity. I highly recommend this book – great for book clubs!
About the author:
Rebecca Makkai’s first story, at the age of three, was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of her stuffed Smurf doll. Sadly, her fiction has never since reached such heights of experimentalism.
Rebecca holds an MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and a BA from Washington and Lee University. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her short fiction has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize XLI (2017), The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 and 2009, New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Fantasy, and featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts and This American Life.
Rebecca has two young daughters. She does not run marathons or do cartwheels, but she does know how to make marshmallows. She was an elementary Montessori teacher for the twelve years before the publication of her first book.
Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, and an O Magazine selection.
Her second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” It was chosen as the Chicago Writers Association’s novel of the year, and received raves in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.
Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, appeared in July, 2015.