A letter to Rebecca Makkai, about The Great Believers

Dear Rebecca Makkai,

The Great Believers is your fourth book, but somehow it's the first one I read. I found this fact to be particularly confounding considering your debut novel, The Borrower, is about a librarian taking a road trip. That premise is completely perfect for me, a librarian who loves road trips and all kinds of travel (well, except camping and exploring nature, but I digress.) But, somehow, it's languished on my TBR like so many other wonderful books.

I'm so glad I picked up The Great Believers. The premise is ambitious: "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. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, his friend 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."

I'm not sure where my fascination of the AIDS crisis stems from. Part of it, I imagine, is my age. I was born in 1980, so I came of age and awareness on the tail end of it. As an adult, I've found myself drawn to the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the AIDS crisis and the gay revolution. Despite that, reading The Great Believers made me realize how many of those stories are centered in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was refreshing to see this time explored in Chicago.

I'm particularly glad I read this book in 2018, a year where things too often feel hopeless. Yale and his friends are prescient reminders of both how far we've come and how far we still have to go. They reminded me that a lot changes in thirty years: "It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.” As I read, I was grateful this novel had two storylines, both because it helped break up the hardest times in 1985, but also because they were both so good. I never preferred one storyline to the other, which is a remarkable feat of storytelling and pacing on your part.

One of the highest compliments I can give a book is telling you it made me ugly cry more than once. The Great Believers broke my hearts with its beauty, tragedy, and humanity.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 431 pages
Publication date:  June 19, 2018
Source: publisher

My favorite passage:  “If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle. I just want to say that.”

Want to read for yourself? Buy The Great Believers from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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  1. I just saw this in a list of great books to read this summer (I think it was Oprah magazine maybe?) and put it on my TBR. I kind of have a fascination with the AIDS crisis, too. Have you read And the Band Played On? Incredible read.

  2. Yep. This is on my list. It sounds amazing. I love a good ugly cry. Haven't done that since A Little Life.

  3. Definitely going to be among my favorite books this year. Loved it. I'm drawn to stories about the AIDS epidemic, too. Three recommendations: Borrowed Time by Paul Monette (recommended to me by Ann Patchett!), The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne and Dog Years, by Mark Doty.


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