The Great Believers is a gripping page-turner, a tragic mystery that will keep you reading late into the night.
An invisible killer stalks the characters in The Great Believers, one that can hide for years before making its sinister purpose known. Now that we understand how HIV operates and have the drugs to prevent it from morphing into AIDS, it is easy to forget just how frightening it must have been to be a sexually active gay man in the 1980s. Yet, rather than examine the epidemic in its early days, Rebecca Makkai sets up her novel to trace the disease’s effects on a group of friends over a period of decades.
Alternating between a group of characters grappling with the emergence of AIDS in Chicago during the 1980s and the story of one of them looking for their daughter in Paris in 2015, The Great Believers is not only about the lives destroyed by AIDS, but how the survivors have continued to cope with the ghosts of their friends who died prematurely. Despite its grim subject matter, The Great Believers is a gripping page-turner, a tragic mystery that will keep you reading late into the night.
In the first section of the book we meet a group of friends who have gathered to commemorate the death of one of their own. It is here we meet Yale Tishman, a young man who works for Northwestern University, helping the school establish a permanent collection for its art museum. Yale is secure in his relationship with Charlie, the somewhat volatile editor of a gay newspaper. Yale believes he is safe from this disease that is slowly killing off his beloved friends.
Makkai makes us understand the dread that permeated communities like Yale’s group of friends by plunging the reader into blood tests, the appearance of lesions and the sudden realization that they too could be infected. She keeps us guessing who will live and who will die. The survivors do begin to appear gradually in the modern section, allowing us to slowly breathe a sigh of relief when each character is spared. Hoping our favorite characters make it out alive propels us forward.
Yet, The Great Believers isn’t a cheap horror novel that uses AIDS to forward its narrative. Makkai makes us believe in her characters, celebrate their small victories and rue their defeats. In some ways, the 1980s narrative is so strong that it threatens to eclipse the 2015 storyline where Fiona, a secondary character in the first section, is looking for her estranged daughter in Paris. Once Makkai reveals her hand, shows exactly why she decided to tell a tale of two narratives, the ingenious power of The Great Believers begins to take form.
Makkai also wisely adds a story to the ‘80s section that has nothing at all to do with AIDS. Following a tip by Fiona, Yale learns that a woman in Wisconsin may possess drawings and sketches from artists such as Pascin and Modigliani, pieces by these masters that no one has ever seen. He hopes that he can convince the woman to donate the art to Northwestern as part of its permanent collection. But are the pieces real? Is Yale willing to stake his job and reputation on art that may actually be forgeries?
In many ways, Yale’s quest to authenticate and acquire the artwork is more interesting than Fiona’s story years later as she searches for a daughter lost to a cult. Although the daughter’s vanishing is tangentially related to events in the 1980s section, Makkai does not give us enough emotional real estate to truly care about the character. Also, the introduction of the 2015 coordinating bombings and terror attacks in Paris feel shoehorned in. We don’t care about those in this story. Instead, we are just waiting to see if Yale and his friends have survived.
The Great Believers is essential reading for those who want to understand the confusion and terror that gripped America’s gay communities in the 1980s. It is essential reading to those who want to understand the lingering effects of that horror. Makkai makes us feel for her characters. Doing just that is the most noble use for literature.