The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

(pub date June 2018)

Writing: 3 Characters: 4 Plot: 4

In this epic novel of lives dismantled by the AIDS epidemic, the action bounces between the gay community in Chicago circa 1985, modern day Paris, and Bohemian Paris on the brink of WWI. There are strong themes of blame, shame, and redemption and good insights into human feeling and behavior in the midst of wide-spread tragedy. The loosely linked narrative streams each elaborate on the impact (both obvious and unrecognized) of large scale bereavement on both survivors and the world at large.

I learned a lot from this book and found the messages powerful, but it was a slog and it did not need to be. The narratives were far too long with little gems of insight buried in lengthy, repetitive, and sometimes irrelevant, prose. The author uses perpetual angst to move the plot forward leaving the reader wrung out by the end. While one could argue this is the right state for the subject, it’s wearing to have it drawn out to such length.

The two main threads – Chicago in 1985 and Paris in 2015 – are really two completely separate stories with only a thin strand of connective tissue. In 1985, Yale Tishman, a young gay man, works to acquire a valuable donation for his new gallery while simultaneously watching his community splinter, fight, panic, and finally succumb as AIDS strikes. In 2015, Fiona, a middle aged woman who was a close friend of Yale’s and whose brother Nico was one of the earliest AIDS victims, searches for the adult daughter (and possible granddaughter) who has intentionally withdrawn from Fiona’s life. Although Fiona features in both, I felt the 2015 story line offered little to the main themes of the book and feel it could have been left out altogether. The themes are really outlined in the 1985 story as well as embedded tale of the art donor, Fiona’s Great Aunt Nora, who feels those going through the AIDS crisis are the only ones who understand what she went through in WWI. She compares the many deaths from WWI (in her youth) to those from AIDS (current) and laments not only that so many friends are gone, but that they never got to live and accomplish. In a beautiful passage she brings to life all the art that never happened because these people died and the tragedy resulting from the fact that we didn’t even know enough to miss it.

On the whole I believe this book is worth reading, especially if you’re interested in a well-researched, detailed story about the devastating impact of AIDS on real, fully drawn people, but be prepared to work a little harder than you should.  Also note I read a pre-release version and there may be considerable editing prior to release.

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