Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. …Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built.

In the 1980s, Yale Tishman is weighed down by a tricky art acquisition for work, relationship problems, and the AIDS crisis striking down his community. In 2015, Fiona chases a shadow of a hope to Paris, where she searches for her estranged daughter. The connection between the two? Fiona’s brother, Nico, was a pillar of Chicago’s gay community and a good friend of Yale’s before dying of AIDS.

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The Great Believers is a twisty book. While its narrative is firmly entrenched within the perspectives of its two main characters, its cast is a large ensemble, sweeping across decades and tied together by all kinds of messy, strained, and complicated relationships.

And frankly, as I got further and further into the book, I got the distinct impression that it’s something someone my mom’s age would read for their book club. There’s the nostalgia for the youthful eighties in one thread, a relatable middle-aged woman of the present day in the other, and they’re tied together by the regrets and hardships in between. It’s a book that I, as a young person, struggled to read in the same way I struggled to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (although that book is hard to read for multiple reasons).

The intricacy of the characters’ relationships combines with the reader’s initial unfamiliarity with said characters in such a way that the book ends up with a slow start. At the beginning, I had trouble mustering the curiosity to follow all of the petty intrigues that were happening. Fiona’s thread suffers from this more than Yale’s. However, as new facets of the characters reveal themselves, and as connections arise between past and present, the plot gradually becomes more engrossing.

By the end of the book, every new detail makes the tale more heart-wrenching. It makes me realize that it’s easy to forgive a slow start in a book if the ending is good. The ending here is an agonizing denouement, scratch upon scratch and bruise upon bruise. A blurb on the back of the book calls it “a healer and a heartbreaker,” but the healing is in catharsis and survival, the healing of a scar rather than a cure.

This book is meaty, emotional, and an excellent tribute to the gay community of 1980s Chicago. It’s also not really my type of book, although I did enjoy it overall. If you are looking for a book club book, though, The Great Believers is a solid fresh pick and a tearjerker without being wholly depressing.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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