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BOOK REVIEW The Great Believers
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-09-05

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By Rebecca Makkai. $24.99; Penguin; 257 pages.

Rebecca Makkai pulls you in.

Whether you're a wide-eyed writing student hanging on to her every word, a bibliophile listening to her interview another author at The Book Cellar or Women and Children First, or a reader thousands of miles away tearing through her latest, Makkai's voice is hypnotic. Whatever she cares about, so will you by the time she finishes a sentence. Her latest, The Great Believers, is by far her most-hyped ( she even appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers last month to plug the book ) and with good reason. Makkai's magnetism is on full display, and her empathetic take on the AIDS crisis and its aftermath makes for a heartwrenching must-read.

The Great Believers alternates between two distinct eras with a series of related characters. In the late 1980s, Yale Tishman fundraises for Northwestern University's art gallery while watching his friends die. His partner is pulling away, his intern is showing more than a professional interest, and Yale is hit especially hard by the loss of his friend Nico. Over two decades later, Nico's younger sister Fiona has come to Paris hoping to find her adult daughter, who's succumbed to the influences of a cult.

Those of us who were young or not even born at the height of the AIDS crisis have heard the stories. Funerals happened weekly, sometimes daily. Entire apartment buildings were wiped out. Everyone was either scared to have sex or threw caution to the wind, disregarding protection in fits of nihilism. Makkai brings these struggles and more to life, eschewing sad-sack cliches in favor of thorough characterizations and many funny moments ( because if you can't laugh during the darkest of times, when can you? ).

Both Yale and Fiona are achingly real in their longing for visual beauty and human connection, and relentless in their quests to find something real, whether that's a sketch from an obscure 1920's artist or face time with a long-lost grandchild. The people in their world throw themselves into photography, fundraising, printing a gay newspaper that would horrify Ronald Reagan. Every character in The Great Believers has an arc and a purpose, so human it's almost hard to bear.

And in the midst of a crisis, jobs have to be done and life lived. Makkai gives work-related road trips and coffeehouse chats as much dramatic weight as she does memorial services. Flirtations happen in rest rooms, life-altering conversations take place during nanny gigs at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Rather than make every event epic, Makkai finds the truth in quiet, otherwise mundane moments and her beautiful sense of detail ( sticky strawberry wine during a tryst, an abandoned cat with a personality ) infuses life into a story about death.

Alternating between Yale and Fiona's narratives, The Great Believers is a breathless page-turner. I cared deeply about both characters and their struggles and found myself thinking about them when I was away from the book. I even kept an eye out for them in my neighborhood, having a drink at Sidetrack or taking in the sky at Belmont Harbor. Makkai's characterization, dialogue and plot are flawless, taking a much-discussed subject and turning it into a story that's simultaneously universal and deeply personal.

Not much is written about the AIDS epidemic outside of New York and San Francisco settings. The Great Believers hits Chicagoans where we live, with a host of recognizable locations. ( Yale dreams of buying a place on Briar and Halsted; Fiona works at Brown Elephant, among other loving details. ) Makkai did her homework, and it shows, placing the reader firmly in the time and place, whether it's a Boystown bar in 1989 or a French gallery in 2015. And whether or not you know someone affected by AIDS, the novel's central theme will firmly resonate: those we love will leave us, and we have no choice but to move on while remembering and yes, believing.


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