katie olson

Love in the time of AIDS

The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai
432 pages
★★★★★

When the New York Times Book Review named Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers one of the ten best books of 2018, I knew I had to get my hands on it, but that proved to be quite difficult. My local Barnes & Noble didn’t have it in stock in-store or online, and I was even out of luck with Amazon, who said the book would return “soon.”

So, when I visited Seattle for the new year, I stopped by Elliott Bay Book Company where I found a hefty stack of copies! I purchased my own, wrapped it up, and brought it home with me, finally cracking its spine in the last week of January. 

In short, the book alternates between 1985-1990s Chicago and Paris in 2015, with a protagonist for each time period. While the book reads from an omniscient perspective, the first character who is introduced is Yale Tishman, a young gay man who works at Northwestern and lives as one of the spokes in the wheel of the Chicago queer community. As the book begins, it is immediately apparent that the AIDS epidemic is just beginning to sink its teeth into the metropolitan areas of the United States. 

The second protagonist of the book—who is visiting Paris in 2015—is named Fiona. A close friend of Yale’s, Fiona travels to Paris in search of her estranged daughter, Claire. After tracking her down with the help of a private investigator, Fiona begins a somewhat awkward reunion process just as terrorism hits the city in the form of the very real November 2015 attacks. 

Throughout the book, Yale’s and Fiona’s stories intertwine as men continue to contract and die as a result of AIDS, specifically those within their small circle of friends. Dotted with blood tests, hospital stays, and funerals, Fiona takes care of these men and lives 200 years by the time she reaches 25. If there is one area (there are more, of course) in which Makkai succeeds, it is developing the heightening sense of paranoia as people continue to succumb to AIDS-related illnesses and cultivating the helpless feeling of facing the government’s ignorance and a deathly disease that has no cure. 

I particularly love reading books that take place in the years before I was born, especially when they involve important historical events. While The Great Believers is a fictional account of the Chicago AIDS crisis, this book opened my eyes to the fear that existed across the country throughout the eighties and into the nineties. If anything, this is what books are meant to do—transport readers to a different time, and perhaps even engender strong and new feelings. 

While The Great Believers may not be the uplifting read many are looking for these days, it’s such a worthwhile and necessary contribution to the literary world. I think it would work particularly well as a movie—I kept thinking of actors who would do wonderfully in the roles introduced throughout the book—but perhaps this story is better held sacred as a novel. 

Let me know if you read this one!

Purchase it from your local bookstore!

Powell’s
Elliott Bay Books
Books Are Magic
Skylight Books


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