Rebecca Makkai Captures Fear, Devastation & Profound Grief of AIDS Epidemic in ‘The Great Believers’

A profoundly moving tale of multi-generational loss.

the great believers rebecca makkai book review
The Great Believers Book Cover The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai
Adult Fiction, LGBTQ+
June 19, 2018

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico's funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico's little sister.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.

This review contains quotes from the book.

In her devastating, National Book Award-nominated new release, The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai weaves themes of loss, betrayal, friendship, love and even hope through a multi-generational tale that deftly captures the culture of Chicago’s gay scene in the late 1980s. Through crisp yet poignant prose, Makkai reflects on gay culture and the harrowing effects of the AIDS epidemic that devastated Chicago for a decade through two very different victims — their names are Fiona and Yale.

Through gripping, gritty narration, Makkai recounts the life of Yale Tishman from 1985 onward. Despite his successful relationship and his growing position as an art director at Northwestern University, Yale’s life is infused with insecurity and an encroaching fear of illness. The once thriving Boystown community — complete with lively bars, raucous parties, festive parades, and an incredible art and theater scene — is losing a bit of its charm due to the outbreak of AIDS. There one moment, gone the next, Yale, his partner Charlie, and his large community of friends have experienced their first big loss in Nico — the thread that ties the story together in many respects, in that his presence, his life, and his legacy, bind Yale and Fiona together.

More than just a horrible, devastating disease that destroys a person, AIDS was a source of crippling fear and prejudice that claimed not just the lives of thousands, but destroyed families, communities and relationships not only as an illness but as a source of acute anxiety.  Worries about contracting the disease, obtaining unnecessary germs, or worse, experiencing loss first-hand, dictated action in communities overrun by the deadly disease — a phantom ghost lingering in every household and watching over every relationship.

And how could she answer? They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking everyday through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?

– excerpt from Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers

As Yale experiences ups and downs from the period between 1985 and 1992 from a heart-breaking betrayal of his long-time lover Charlie, to the continued loss of friends (both literal and metaphorical), and the need to move from place to place, all the while concerned with contracting the virus, his life slowly becomes intertwined with Fiona’s. First as a beloved sister figure, then as a confidant and invaluable support system, Fiona becomes a connection to art through her extended family; a shoulder to cry on after break-ups, job struggles, and complications associated with AIDS; and an incredibly close friend – a partner in crime, a tremendous source of comfort, and a devoted caretaker.

Chapter after chapter, hidden webs and remarkable connections from the novice painter, Ranko Novak, to side-characters including a former co-worker and her son, Cecily Pierce, a photographer and friend, Richard Campo, and even Fiona’s beloved brother Nico bring Yale and Fiona closer together. Told through chapters that alternate between past (1985-1992) and present (2015) in two very different cities (Chicago and Paris), The Great Believers combines tormenting loss with unbelievable hope as Fiona comes to terms with her past while searching for her long-lost daughter Claire.

Remarkable discoveries unfold in Paris, while the heart-breaking tale of Yale’s life in Chicago unfolds. Despite the dual-perspective approach, Makkai deftly weaves chapters together through content, effectively bridging the gap between gender, sexuality, time and location with a memory, an acquaintance, or a well-timed introduction to a prominent theme.

All the while, Makkai offers a commentary on the prejudice and hatred of the period. Fear created an unsettling political and social landscape in which not only the LGBTQ+ community but any who happened to be unlucky enough to contract the disease were ostracized, torn down and treated with disdain. Miseducation led to fear that simple contact would lead to a spread of the disease, thereby resulting in harsh comments and violence aimed at gay men, even those who were uninfected. Marches for AIDS advocacy in hospitals (for men and women) were met with unnecessary violence, as we witness firsthand through Yale, while those without health insurance suffered from a lack of proper care. Limited hospital beds, expensive medications, and experimental treatments were endured by many while they were wasting away as a result of varied complications from the disease, which ranged from thrush and a rash to lesions, difficulty breathing, blindness and more.

…the disease itself feels like a judgment. If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is a problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment of your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.

– excerpt from Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers

Told through vivid (and often times tear-jerking) color, The Great Believers is a haunting exploration of the AIDS epidemic – one that brings new life to the destructive disease and recounts just how difficult it was living during a period of rampant illness and loss. Although many are familiar with the physical consequences of the disease and have seen it in film, most are unfamiliar with the effects, not just of physical victims, but of their friends, families, and communities — those who lived through the change in atmosphere and were shaped by the experience of loss.  Enlightening and profound, The Great Believers should be required reading for everyone as Makkai’s expertly woven prose has the ability to be educational and nostalgic, accurately capturing multiple facets of an often neglected disease.

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Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.