Mini Review – The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai*

This year, I’ve found myself gravitating towards books that I would have been intimidated by in 2017. By that, I mean books that are longer than 300ish pages and that tackle strong social topics. Since I started reading books that bring social problems to light, I’ve been keen to read as many as possible. The Great Believers is a book that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a while now after reading The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara earlier in 2018. The book tackled the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and how it affected a small friendship circle of drag artists. I realised how little I knew about the AIDS epidemic and how it affected those who contracted it and the prejudice those with HIV experienced. So when I received a copy of this from Little Brown, I put everything I was reading down so I could give The Great Believers my undivided attention.

The book jumps between two time periods and settings – Chicago in the mid-80’s/early 90’s and Paris in 2015. Firstly, we meet Yale – a young gay man living in Chicago, working for an art gallery. When the book starts, we discover that one of Yale’s closest friends Nico has just passed away after a battle with AIDS. It begins to dawn on Yale, his partner and his friends the reality of the AIDS epidemic and how quickly it can cause someone you love to deteriorate so quickly. Treatment at the time isn’t well developed but testing is available, and although some are keen to get tested, others want to bury their heads in the sand and not know. The book explores the impact the virus has on his friendship group, the anxiety they face around their health and the sad side of burying friends so young.

The other story within the book follows Fiona – Nico’s sister – as she travels to Paris to track down her estranged daughter Claire who disappeared after joining a cult. Desperate to track her daughter down, she enlists the help of a private detective to track down her whereabouts.

The book was well written but at times, could be a little slow. I didn’t care too much about Fiona’s story in Paris. Although the characters tied into the tale within the 80s/90s, I didn’t think it added any value and didn’t particularly like Claire as a character. I would much rather of had a book that was entirely about Yale and his group of friends. I enjoyed the different characters within the friendship group but feel what we learned about them, only just scratched the surface and I wish we got to explore their personalities a little more. I found the friendship dynamic similar to A Little Life which I absolutely adored – although I feel A Little Life left much more of an emotional impact on me.

It is a compelling, powerful book that explores uncertainty, sadness and the ripple effect that members of the LGBT community would have experienced at that time. I feel like Makkai did an excellent job in capturing how heart-breaking and bleak that period was. A favourite quote of mine is –

“Do you think it’s possible that all the sickness and funerals and everything—they’ve made us feel less secure?”

I rated this book 3.5 stars. It was a compassionate, bleak and set the tone for how much of a harrowing period this was for those who had either contracted the virus, scared they might or simply lost good friends to HIV. The time hops were well executed, but I didn’t enjoy the parts of the book involving Fiona/Claire. Overall, it is a great book but I wish the focus would have been purely based on Yale and his friends – it was a much more interesting tale.

*A huge thank you to Little Brown UK for sending me this copy for review.

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