Asking what it means to survive a tragedy, Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel explores the impact and aftermath of the AIDS epidemic on a close-knit group of friends.
Shortlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction, The Great Believers centers on the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the Boystown neighborhood of Lake View, Chicago, but the novel also looks forward to present-day Paris and backward to Europe on the eve of WWI. In her fourth work of fiction, author Rebecca Makkai tells three life stories, through two perspectives.
In the main plot, Yale Tishman struggles to cope with the illness of his friends, and placate his jealous partner, Charlie, who fears Yale will leave him after the epidemic ends. Yale’s story, told through the protagonist’s own perspective, begins with the funeral of his friend Nico, but the virus quickly starts to infect the other members of Yale’s social circle. Makkai pays tribute to the many lives lost because of the epidemic, through sympathetic portraiture of Yale’s friends, while also fostering a great deal of suspense concerning which character will be infected next. The novelist’s affecting project is undermined only by the heavy-handedness of her characterization, namely in the case of the hyper-narcissistic Charlie.
As his friends begin to die, Yale, the development director for an art gallery, tries to acquire several high-profile pieces from an eccentric woman named Nora, who happens to be the great aunt of his friend Nico and his sister Fiona. The subplot, though tied to Yale’s career goals, focuses mainly on Nora’s tragic backstory. In the early twentieth century, the great aunt befriended a wide array of famous male artists, who died suddenly and brutally in WWI. Over the course of the novel, Makkai parallels the deaths of those men with those of Yale’s friends. The connection between WWI and the AIDS epidemic is certainly fresh, but not especially convincing, and Nora’s story often distracts from the more compelling tragedy unfolding in Boystown.
The final storyline follows Yale’s friend Fiona in 2015 as she tries to track down her estranged daughter Claire in Paris and make sense of the fact that she, like Nora, has outlived all her closest friends from her twenties. These sections, narrated through Fiona’s point of view, move very slowly, and their ties to Yale’s chapters are not apparent until well after the middle of the novel. After that point, though, Fiona’s quest most clearly articulates the central theme of the novel: what does it mean to live with the guilt of having survived a historical tragedy, when most of your friends died?
The question, while interesting, arrives too late, and is underexplored. It feels like it belongs to another novel, along with Fiona’s fraught relationship with her daughter. Because the author splits her attention among so many narrative threads, none receives enough attention, in spite of the book’s length. The Great Believers has many heart-wrenching passages, as well as a few poignant scenes, but Makkai never quite justifies her novel’s sweeping historical scope.