Set in two time periods, the first in 1980s Chicago and the second in 2015 Paris, The Great Believers throws readers into the thick of–and the aftermath of–the 1980s AIDS crisis.
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The Great Believers has found a place on my all-time favorite books list, and is certainly one on my best books of 2018. Reminiscent of both A Little Life and The Heart’s Invisible Furies (also books I loved), it’s also wholly its own story. Set in two time periods, the first in 1980s Chicago and the second in 2015 Paris, the book throws readers into the thick of–and the aftermath of–the 1980s AIDS crisis.
Yale is a young man in Chicago who has just found his stride in his career at a Northwestern art gallery, his relationship with his partner, Charlie, and the thriving gay community known as Boystown. But the community he loves is being hit by AIDS, and his immediate circle has finally been affected by the death of his friend Nico.
Fiona is Nico’s sister who has adopted Yale and the rest of the friend group as her own family, even as they fall one-by-one to the virus. This decision reverberates through her life, alienating her from her daughter, who she searches for in Paris in 2015.
Makkai masterfully juxtaposes the AIDS crisis with several other tragic events, including world wars and terrorist attacks. These, as well as a thread about historical art, are brilliantly woven together to highlight the generations of people and talents lost to these devastations.
AIDS victims, of course, were afforded none of the respect or public mourning of war or terrorism casualties, and were instead relegated to ill-equipped hospitals, often to die alone.
While sad and often infuriating, The Great Believers is also a hopeful book. The characters are flawed but also well-meaning and kind. I loved them, and this is one of the few books I can see myself reading again.
Want to know more about this book? Check out 11 Things to Know About The Great Believers: The Story of the Story
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.
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