Monday, January 28, 2019

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

In this compelling novel, Rebecca Makkai documents the story of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980's.  Her version is set in Chicago.  Yale is the development director for an art galley associated with a college.  Fiona is the little sister of Nico, one of the first of the group of gay friends to die and she is considered everyone's little sister.  Yale is in a committed relationship with Charlie and he is about to score the coup of his career.  Fiona has mentioned him to her great aunt who is dying.  The aunt lived in Paris in her youth, in the 1920's and knew and modeled for many of the great artists of that time.  She wants to donate her collection so that it can finally be seen, and Yale quickly realizes that this donation will make his career as it is more important than anyone expected. 

But all is not well.  In his extended group, men start to get sick and then die.  Soon the disease is hitting those close to him and the group learns the grim statistics and the curve of dying.  Friendships are tested and families are often not ready to face the fact that this disease not only kills but exposes the gay lifestyle at a time when it was not readily accepted except in the large cities such as Chicago where this novel is set.

The book alternates chapters between the 1980's in Chicago and modern day Paris.  Fiona is now a middle-aged woman and has come to Paris to attempt to find her estranged daughter and perhaps a granddaughter which she has heard rumors of.  She arrives in time to be exposed to the terrorist attacks.  Being there makes her think back to the days in Chicago and all the losses she knew then.  But there is still hope in her life.

This book received a lot of attention.  It was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of the 10 Best Books Of The Year for the New York Times as well as other awards.   Readers who are older will be instantly transported back to remember those times and how the virus exploded into consciousness and how afraid the average person was of the disease and those who got it.  Readers who are younger will get a real appreciation for this mind-changing event and how it was a defining issue for gay men in particular.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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