1980s Chicago and the AIDs Crisis – 2015 Paris terrorism and cults. An incredibly moving story of friendships and loss. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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My Review:

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!

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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.

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Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

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My Review:

It is the 1990s and Dave, son of Harvard educated hippies, is one of only a few white kids in his Boston middle school.  Having a difficult time connecting with the other students, he becomes drawn to Marlon, a black kid from the projects who seems to have similar interests; video games, the Boston Celtics and getting into the better high school.  They become friendly but both are ashamed of their home life and there is always a distance between them even as they become closer.  They spend hours watching vintage basketball games and have
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Just Between Us by Rebecca Drake

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My Review:

Suspense/thriller Author Rebecca Drake takes us to a suburban town where four close friends each hide dirty secrets that are slowly revealed as the fast paced story in Just Between Us unfolds.  This domestic drama, similar in some ways to Big Little Lies, showcases their perfect, small town existence, but behind the public facade, there is darkness.

Three friends believe the other is in an abusive marriage and when the husband is found dead,
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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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My Review:

An unexpected treasure; this surprisingly touching story is about Eleanor Oliphant, an odd character with traits reminiscent of eccentric and lovable Don Tillman from The Rosie Project and maybe even oddball Ove from A Man Called Ove.  In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, unknown tragic beginnings have shaped Eleanor’s life of monotony, resulting in her being an outcast.  Days have been peppered with bouts of depression and have lead to her acceptance of the most basic existence.  Socially anxious and at times delusional, Eleanor’s inner struggle shows itself on the outside with an obvious clue; she has a scar on her face…often times the elephant in the room.

Eleanor develops a casual friendship with Raymond, the slightly offensive IT guy at work, and at the same time she has her mind set on a fairy tale future with a musician she has yet to meet.  We follow Eleanor as she struggles to understand people and and common communication.  Intuition does not come naturally so she is awkward and literal.  Eleanor slowly undergoes a transformation; she improves her appearance and begins to communicate more effectively, enjoying her time with Raymond, learning how to participate in life, and ultimately realizing a relationship with the musician is a pipe dream.

Working with a therapist, Eleanor becomes more honest with herself, revealing the horrific tragedy of her youth and its impact on her current life, and opening up doors that have been nailed shut for many years.  It will be a long haul to leave all her nightmares behind, but watching Eleanor progress, from a loner living with ghosts of the past, to a participatory member of the community with friends and moments of happiness, was a wonderful and emotional journey.  I couldn’t help but love Eleanor and root for her healing and happiness.
With a disturbing past, a quirky and intriguing present, and a most hopeful future, the well written, rich story, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is one of the literary highlights of my summer!  Don’t miss it!

As seen in Goodreads:

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

Then everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living–and it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

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About the author:

Gail Honeyman wrote her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, while working a full-time job, and it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress. She has also been awarded the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award 2014, was longlisted for BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She lives in Glasgow.

Say Goodbye For Now

 

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The Goodreads blurb says:

On an isolated Texas ranch, Dr. Lucy cares for abandoned animals. The solitude allows her to avoid the people and places that remind her of the past. Not that any of the townsfolk care. In 1959, no one is interested in a woman doctor. Nor are they welcoming Calvin and Justin Bell, a newly arrived African American father and son.

When Pete Solomon, a neglected twelve-year-old boy, and Justin bring a wounded wolf-dog hybrid to Dr. Lucy, the outcasts soon find refuge in one another. Lucy never thought she’d make connections again, never mind fall in love. Pete never imagined he’d find friends as loyal as Justin and the dog. But these four people aren’t allowed to be friends, much less a family, when the whole town turns violently against them.

With heavy hearts, Dr. Lucy and Pete say goodbye to Calvin and Justin. But through the years they keep hope alive…waiting for the world to catch up with them.

My Comments:

Catherine Ryan Hyde has written over 30 novels including Pay it Forward which was made into a movie in 2000.Her latest book, Say Goodbye For Now is a touching story taking place from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. It starts out with Pete, a 12 year old boy finding what he thinks is an injured dog on the side of the road in a small Texas town. His good pal ditches him to go fishing so Pete, an honest, goodhearted soul decides to help the injured animal on his own. He runs into another young boy, Justin, who agrees to walk with him for a short while and after many miles he delivers the lame dog he calls Prince to a doctor, Dr. Lucy, who has since given up her human practice to take in injured animals and nurse them back to health. Dr. Lucy informs Pete that Prince is part wolf and is a wild animal that will need to be released once he heals but Pete is hopeful that will not be the case.

Some townspeople saw Pete walking to the Dr. with Justin and informed Pete’s dad. It is 1959 and whites fraternizing with blacks was looked down upon so Pete’s dad, a small minded, power hungry, single father on leave from work due to a back injury whipped his son and threatened him. And then Justin was violently beat up. Pete brought injured and bloody Justin to Dr. Lucy and Calvin, Justin’s concerned and loving dad arrived to make sure his boy was ok.

The connection between Lucy and Calvin was immediate and undeniable. Calvin was appreciative for the care Lucy was giving his son, but there was more to it.  Yet it was dangerous and against the law for them to be together. The people in the small town in Texas were not in favor of mixed race relationships and they went so far as to beat up Calvin and get him sent to jail.

Would the laws prevent Lucy and Calvin from ever having a chance to let their relationship grow? Who would take care of Justin when his dad was in jail? Could Pete go home back to his abusive father? Could Lucy open up her heart and her home to Pete, Justin and Calvin? What would happen when Prince was healed? If you love animals, friendship, forbidden love and what is right, you will be touched by this novel.

Say Goodbye For Now is set during a time where the laws prevented freedom. Loving vs Virginia is the actual civil rights decision of the US. Supreme Court that came about in 1967. It stated that previous laws prohibiting interracial marriage were invalid. So finally, approximately 8 years after Lucy and Calvin met, interracial relationships were declared legal.

The characters in Say Goodbye For Now show us that those who rescue others also need to be rescued. Caring, appreciative people with solid moral values have a good chance at finding happiness and seeing the good in the world while judgmental people with fears and prejudice may always be fighting to stay on top by beating others down. And, most of all, saying goodbye may not mean forever.  This emotional story pulled at my heartstrings and I read the second half through my tears.