The Great Believers ~ Rebecca Makkai

This is a good book but I was personally disappointed for a couple reasons.

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

2018 /
read by Michael Crouch 18h 17m
rating: 8 / contemp fiction

The Great Believers opens in Chicago 1985, about 2 years into the AIDS crisis. In the book, Nico Marcus, age 30?, died of the disease about two weeks prior and now there is a family funeral for him – not mentioning AIDS or gayness. Mean- while, his close friends are having their own party at a private residence. That’s where Yale Tishman and his rather high-strung partner Charlie are going.  

The next chapter unfolds in 2015 when Fiona Marcus, Nico’s sister but who was also at the party for Nico, is flying to Paris in search of her own daughter, Claire.

And so the relatively short chapters alternate between 1985 and 2015 with each plot thread continuing to gather characters as time goes on, but also losing several (and then more) on the way and finally overlapping some.

The main story here is how the AIDS epidemic tore through the gay community with a lot of different reactions and responses from the directly affected individuals as well as of others more peripherally involved AIDS affected whole families and friends and colleagues and sometimes goes even to the third generation. What Makkai shows us is the many ways AIDS affected these people

The intimate friends of the diseased are mostly pretty scared to varying degrees for themselves and each other. Some families love and support their victim while others abandon them – or did prior.

In 2015 Fiona, the sister of Nico goes to Paris in search of her daughter Claire who has been missing for several years. Claire has her own problems. Nico was her beloved uncle and his parents (also Fiona’s) were not at all supportive. (And Nora, who plays a large part in the 1980s, was Fiona’s wealthy aunt bequeathing a pricey but problematical art collection to the university museum where Yale works.)

The story comes together in bits and pieces managing to avoid spoilers re the 1980s in the 2015 chapters. Who survives and who doesn’t is slowly revealed.

I was disappointed for a couple big personal reasons because, I think, it’s probably a very good book on its own. First, was the impact that And the Band Played On (1987) had on me. That book pretty much told the very sad story from a San Francisco perspective. I read it in 1997 or so.

The second reason for my general disappointment may be due to the fact that between the time The Great Believers was first published (in 2018) and now a lot has happened in the world – first there was Covid-19, another pandemic, and now there’s Ukraine. In 2018 none of that was even on the horizon so I suppose the reviewers were also wow’d? (Seems like they might have been.) and I was influenced by the hype

But I just have a hard time getting all worked up about the AIDS epidemic now even though I know it’s not over. Fwiw, I was in my 30s during the 1980s so these kids are close to the same age. I remember the panic of the unknown – I also “remember” being pretty much isolated and wearing masks for these past 2 years due to being “at risk.” It’s not over yet, either.

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