Rebecca Makkai is a skilled and versatile writer whose work often contains a quietly comic edge. Her ambitious new novel, The Great Believers, is a change of pace, exploring the effects of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community in Chicago.
The novel begins in 1985. Nico Marcus has died from AIDS-related illnesses, and his parents have banned his partner and friends from attending the funeral. His friends have organized an unofficial wake at the home of local photographer Richard Campo, where gatherers include Yale Tishman, a development director at a university art gallery, and his partner Charlie Keene, editor and owner of the local gay newspaper. Also present is Nico’s fiercely loyal sister, Fiona. Her attachment to Nico’s circle has repercussions that echo decades later, as explored in the novel’s second storyline, set in 2015, which finds Fiona searching for her estranged daughter and staying with Richard, now a world-famous photographer living in Paris.
As is true of many novels with parallel narratives, one storyline initially seems more compelling than the other. Yale’s pursuit of a career-making donation of French art from an unlikely donor and the slow passage of the virus through his circle of friends overshadow the bumpy path of Fiona’s frantic, unfulfilling life. But when Fiona realizes the toll that being a caregiver has taken on her own life, the two stories come together in a way that honors the different forms of suffering on both sides.
As Makkai notes in the afterword, when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed “the line between allyship and appropriation.” But The Great Believers reminds us of the powerful connection between fiction and empathic imagination. Makkai does a superb job re-creating the atmosphere of bigotry and moral finger-pointing that existed even in a big city like Chicago during the early years of the epidemic, as well as the enormous changes wrought by compassionate activists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, artists and social workers who did so much to improve the lives and deaths of so many people, especially gay men.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.