Rebecca Makkai

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The Great Believers

Makkai, Rebecca

Last Updated: May-26-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


The subject of Rebecca Makkai's engaging book, The Great Believers is the AIDS epidemic. Her narrative unfolds in two eras separated by 40 years. It opens in the mid-1980s with the funeral of Nico, one of HIV’s first victims when the epidemic exploded in the gay community living in Chicago. In the second chapter, the time frame abruptly switches to 2015 and introduces Fiona Marcus, Nico’s sister. She was part of the gay scene in Chicago in the 1980s, grew attached to the men, and provided the care and comfort that many of the families were unable to offer when their sons were dying of AIDS.

In the earlier time period, Makkai's main protagonist is Yale Tishman, the director of development at an art gallery affiliated with a prominent unnamed university in the Chicago area. He is working with a small group of colleagues, including a young man uncertain of his gender identity, to acquire a batch of paintings from Nora Marcus Lerner. She is an elderly woman who happens to be Fiona and Nico’s aunt. and who was part of the avant-garde social circle surrounding the modern artists living in Paris in the wake of the First World War. As Nora reaches the end of her long life, she desperately wants to preserve the artistic memory of her lover who died as a young man. As Yale works to finalize the acquisition, his relationship with his lover, Charlie, falters and triggers a series of untimely deaths in Yale’s close circle of friends. Ultimately, Yale also succumbs to the HIV virus.

In 2015, Fiona has engaged a private investigator to locate her estranged daughter, Claire, who is living in Paris and has rebuffed numerous efforts in the past to reconnect with her mother. Ultimately, Fiona is able to move past the intensity of her caregiving role to gay men in the 1980s and to reconnect and reestablish a tentative relationship with her daughter. There is hope that with a renewed bond with her daughter she can restore a reason to live that will be as strong as the work she did to support and sustain her gay friends through the agonies of AIDS.

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