The Great Believers

Makkai, Rebecca

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: May-20-2019
  • Last revised: May-26-2019


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.


The AIDS epidemic has proven to be the singular medical event of the past 50 years. There have been plagues of epic proportion throughout history. But AIDS cut through the population suddenly like a war campaign and initially had a surgical impact on a narrow demographic group -- previously healthy young men. Moreover, the sudden emergence of the illness in gay men added the stigma of social condemnation to the physical devastation of disease. Many novels have been written, memoirs compiled, in the wake of the epidemic. They reflect the evolution of the disease from an almost universally fatal infection to a chronic disease compatible with long-term survival. With this in mind, one could justifiably wonder whether another meaningful word could be added to this vast literature. Makkai's The Great Believers proves that writing about well-traveled territory is no obstacle to artistic achievement.

The chapters alternate between the 1980s and 2015. There is a parallelism between Yale’s struggle to stay alive and sustain the memory of Nora’s lover and his paintings and Fiona’s efforts to restore a loving mother-daughter relationship. However, the chapters set in the 1980s feel more dramatic than the sections that describe the search for Claire. The storyline in 1980s Chicago pulses with the energy of the doomed men who inevitably get infected with the virus and die. The race against death and the pursuit of artistic immortality grab the reader by the heart and throat. Fiona’s interactions with Claire are more private and less newsworthy than the HIV events, but they share the same power and intimacy. Even in 2015, the search for Claire unfolds in the context of a public tragedy, the terror attack at the Bataclan nightclub and concert hall near Paris’s Place de la République. The prose in both eras is ingenious and the structure of the novel enlightens without being pedantic. It allows the two eras to shed light on each other. Decades before the AIDS epidemic, the aftermath of World War I followed closely by the influenza pandemic of 1918 decimated the population of Europe and left many young people dead in its wake. War and disease intermingle and indiscriminately cause the loss of young lives. There are young women, Fionas and Noras, whose lives are ineradicably altered by the death of men who they loved and cared for.

What makes the book so notable is how Makkai parlays the two time periods, so rich in drama and tragedy, to shed light on the emotions that affect us all in our everyday encounters. Friendship, love and betrayal, achievement and human limitations, pride and forgiveness play out for everyone at some time. But we often fail to take notice in the routine day-to-day pattern of our quotidian lives. In her book, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag proposed that being sick can be become a symbol of the person who is ill. Use of metaphor to describe disease can be transformed into a destructive tool that society deploys to blame the victim. Makkai's book suggests another way to view disease and its impact on people, namely illness as crucible. When profound illness occurs, especially on a grand scale, it forces the victims and their loved ones to confront problems and make decisions in a highly charged and concentrated way. When an overwhelming disease like AIDS is used as the backdrop of a novel, it recapitulates the intensity of the lives lived in the shadow of disease. It focuses the mind of the reader and tightens the narrative. Provided the author maintains an honest relationship with the characters and the events, the results can be truly memorable. Makkai succeeds in capturing the humanity and lethality of the HIV epidemic and the extreme consequences for the victims and the survivors alike. It offers lessons for us all.


Nominated for a 2018 National Book Award for Fiction and a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Penguin Publishing Viking Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count