The Great Believers

Author: Rebecca Makkai

Published: June 19, 2018

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Random House

Where I picked up my book: Library (but will be purchasing it ASAP)

Key Words: AIDS epidemic, LGBTQ+, Historical Fiction, friendship

My Rating: 5 stars

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Synopsis (via Penguin Random House):

“A page turner…An absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it’s like to live during times of crisis. “—The New York Times Book Review
 
A dazzling new novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy and loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, by the acclaimed author Rebecca Makkai

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.

My Thoughts:

This book, although so SO difficult to read, literally swept me away and spit me out after I read the last sentence. I have been waiting years to read this book and finally-it’s here. I’m a gay women, lived in San Francisco where the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic happened and listened to many stories and visited a lot of memorials while there, have a gay aunt that lived in San Francisco during the 80’s and have heard some of her stories about the lesbian community stepping up and helping out in clinics during this time, and I have a lot of gay friends that were affected but this tragedy. On the flip side, I also grew up in the 90’s and clearly remember being taught to completely fear AIDS, it was a punishment for being gay (yep…that’s what a lot of “Christian” households were teaching the time), steer clear of blood transfusions and ban gays from giving blood (Ryan White), and we aren’t quite sure how you get it so just in case, don’t sit on public toilet seats. It was a terrible, fear mongering tactic, but it was also unfortunately, all too common. Ugh…that’s why books like this are so important. Fast forward to my adult years and I remember going to a performance of the gay men’s chorus in San Francisco one winter and they told us to imagine for each man singing, more than one chorus member has died of AIDS. That not only represented what happened to their chorus, but also to the majority of gay communities during the 80’s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Entire communities, apartment buildings, choruses, teams, friend circles, and work places were completely wiped out. Can you even imagine this sort of heartbreak? Even when I try to imagine it, I literally have trouble. After hearing this that night, it made me realize even more how pertinent it is to never let this story, and more importantly, the victim’s stories and memories, disappear.

Most of us know the story of AIDS and how it has maybe been told to us by teachers, or textbooks, but what we might not know is the first hand stories that went along with it. This book, although fiction, gives us a look into what this crisis did to relationships and friendship, how families were affected, what happened behind closed doors and inside peoples heads as they themselves were dying, or as they watched their friends or family die around them. We are shown what hospitals looked like at the time, what happened after the person died, how society treated each other during this time, and how it has affected survivors of the crisis until the present day. This book forced me to imagine what life might have been like to live through this awful experience. It is devastatingly beautiful and I’m not sure I could have enjoyed a book more if I tried. It will most certainly be in my top books of 2018 and I can’t recommend it enough. Thank you Rebecca for writing this story and giving a voice to so many people that might otherwise have been forgotten.

And now…for a drink.

bookishfolk…read instead.

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