25 June 2020

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Every year I look forward to end-of-the-year lists and checking out as many as I possibly can. I usually always go through the New York Times's list fairly slowly, making notes of what I think I will and will not like. Meg and I both have a ton of books on our shelves that we haven't gotten to yet - which is evident from our "What We Got For Christmas" list every year... so when I  talk about The Great Believers being on the NYT's best-of list, I am actually referring to their list from January 2018 - which I'm just getting to now in 2020. Regardless, I'm glad I wrote this one down years ago!

Hannah Makkai's The Great Believers is 418 pages and I feel like I went through it very slowly (~5 weeks). I'm not a super fast reader, I just read compulsively. So I was shocked to think back to when I started this book and when I ended up finishing it. I do feel like with this book, more than any other, I really took my time with it and enjoyed getting to know the different characters.

The Great Believers is split between two different perspectives - Yale, a gay man living in Chicago in 1985, and Fiona (Yale's friend's sister) years later in 2015. In 1985 Yale and his friends are dealing with the outbreak of the AIDS crisis and watching many of their friends get sick and die. In 2015, Fiona is reconnecting with an old friend who covered the crisis and spent time with the young, gay community back in Chicago.

The stuff with Fiona in 2015 deals a lot with her trying to have a relationship with her daughter, and her reckoning with all the people she lost to AIDS when she was only in her twenties. I did like the stuff centered around Fiona but only when it directly related to her memories of her brother (who was the first person she knew to die of AIDS) and his friend group. The stuff about her daughter didn't really leave a lasting impression on me.

During the 2015 timeline I found myself feeling anxious to get back to Yale's storyline in the eighties. Yale's group of friends are characterized with so much detail that even though a lot of them serve as secondary characters (Teddy, Richard Campo), I still remember their names and traits. I didn't write down a lot of quotations from this book like I usually do, but when I think of The Great Believers I feel like their story is still so fresh and that I could easily jump right back into it. That's all a testament to Makkai's writing, which I found to not be flowery, but kept me really engaged with what was happening.

Watching Julian's production of Hamlet, he'd been struck by Laertes' response to Ophelia's death. 'O where?' he'd said when he heard the news. But yes, look, it was right: The details were what you grabbed for."

Author of The Great Believers - Rebecca Makkai
This book was certainly an emotional ride... I definitely cried a few times reading it and it's hard to not feel heavy and upset for a while after putting it down. As I was reading this book I was listening to a podcast that covered Jonathan Demme's 1993 movie Philadelphia where Tom Hanks plays a man with AIDS.

They said in the podcast that Demme wanted to make sure many of the people in the movie were actually suffering from AIDS, and that the movie didn't feel exploitative to the gay community. The podcast hosts reveal that of the 50 or so actors and crew that were diagnosed with AIDS and working on the movie, all but three or four were dead by the time the movie was out. This is what I assume must have been so scary about the AIDS crisis... just how quickly everything was happening without any real answers.

This is similar in The Great Believers where we see some characters suffer through the disease from early diagnosis until their death (around two years), as well as some characters who die almost instantly. We get almost everything from Yale and Fiona's perspective, and their shock at how fast it all happens is never lost.

Chicago in the 1980s
One of the other things I found really disturbing about the book was how people react to terminal news. So many characters you get to know eventually become sick with AIDS and you feel like you're constantly holding your breath hoping they won't get a positive test back. One of the more shocking passages was from a young gay man who believed he could somehow avoid it just by knowing it exits in the first place. I am terrified of disease and injury, and constantly tell myself if I'm this worried about it/thinking about it all the time then it couldn't possibly happen to me... This makes no sense and I don't know why I feel that way, but when I read the below character's thought it made my heart skip a little:

When you think a specific bad thing is going to happen, it never does. I don't mean like if you think it looks like rain it won't rain, but like if you think your plane will crash, it won't."

The Great Believers reminds you that no one really knows how to deal with grief. That we all have ways we try to cope and protect ourselves, but that we are ultimately unable to control anything in our lives, let alone a crisis as deadly and relentless as AIDS.

The ending of this book is one of the best endings I've read in a very long time. It is so sad but also very sweet. I have goosebumps right now writing this and thinking about it. In Makkai's acknowledgments she talks about how helpful people were to make sure she was painting a clear and accurate portrait of what this time was like for the people involved. She also listed some of the resources she found most helpful - including a graphic novel, photo series, and a YouTube video of a march in 1990. After reading The Great Believers it really made me want to check out more books on the subject.

I'd recommend this book to anyone and everyone. I'm so glad I caught it on the NYT's list.

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