Written with great strength and deep emotion, THE GREAT BELIEVERS is ambitious and filled with heart-felt characters that have nested in my memory and threaten to stay forever. This story made me think. Made me remember that time in the eighties when all the gorgeous young men were being taken.
Both stories; that of Yale, and that of Fiona, are powerful and compelling. Going back and forth in time between the eighties and present day Paris, this new novel is bound to be a force to be reckoned with. And rightly so!
THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai
begins in 1985 in Chicago with a memorial service being held in the home of photographer Richard Campo. Meanwhile, on the other side of Chicago, a funeral is also being held. Why two services at the same time, in the same city? The young deceased man is gay. His parents will not receive any “gay” people at the funeral. Nico Marcus had plenty of gay friends. Very dear friends who cherished their relationships with him. He also had a sister totally devoted to him. She chose to turn her back on the family affair, and attend the memorial service instead.
Nico was the first, but far from the last of the beautiful gay men who died so very young during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and early 90’s. This is a story of one group of friends and how their world turned upside down while they were dying by the thousands. It is also the very telling story of the horrors visited by their loved ones and caretakers. It’s much more than just a story about AIDS.
THE GREAT BELIEVERS takes place over the course of 30 years. There are two story-lines, and some could even say there are three. The first story is the important telling of the beginning and height of the AIDS era in Chicago. Yale Tishman is one of the main voices. Fiona Marcus is the other. Yale is the development director of a start-up Northwestern University art gallery. He’s in the process of trying to acquire a set of 1920’s paintings that could set his career. He shares his life with his partner Charlie who early on makes a fatal error in judgement that quickly sets the tone for the future. Fiona, Nico’s sister, has taken the group under her wing and becomes like family to them all.
As serious as this important topic is, Makkai has managed to insert witty remarks and asides that are crucial to making this story so readable. Her writing is superb. Her story-telling is beyond reproach. She’s managed to make the dialog simply realistic. I felt I knew these people. With quiet assurance and a strong sense of place, I believe this novel will become a classic.
I lived through the 80’s as a young woman. I remember well the fear and prejudice that took over the country, and the world. I was 30 during that time. Everyone was afraid; gay or not. AIDS was very poorly understood back then. Every gay young man was scared of testing positive for the disease. This exquisite novel perfectly captures that moment in time.
There is a part of the story where Yale has discovered an older woman who posed as a model in the 20’s in Paris for an artist. She wants to speak to him about the set of paintings he gave her. She, in fact, wants to donate them to his gallery. Then the humor sets in. You see, her family is not so keen on this. They knew not of these paintings she’s kept hidden away all these years. I call this part of the novel the “comic” relief. I enjoyed it immensely.
The second part of the novel is set in Paris in 2015. Fiona has turned 50. She’s divorced and very bitter, and she’s searching for her estranged daughter, Claire. Claire may have given birth to a child, but we do not know this yet. Fiona hooks up with her old photographer friend Richard Campo, who is one of the last survivors of the group. These scenes in Paris present day are very atmospheric and help move the story into the here and now.
The AIDS epidemic has been widely written about from the vantage point of New York City and San Francisco. Now we have the fresh perspective from a great writer who knows the business of Chicago and how this horrific disease ravaged this city.
Moving and deeply thoughtful, this roller-coaster journey shows not only the effects of AIDS on the victims but, the residual effects on surviving family and friends.
It is with great pleasure that I offer a copy for giveaway to one very lucky winner. Please leave a comment below to enter the contest. Please, no P.O. boxes, and only U.S. addresses, as usual. The very generous publishing people at Viking are providing the winner a copy of THE GREAT BELIEVER. Not to be missed. I am a huge advocate for this book and this author. I think it’s simply wonderful!
I will announce my winner on Friday, June 22. Good luck.