Saturday, June 30, 2018

Book Review: "The Great Believers" by Rebecca Makkai

At the start of The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai's beautifully poignant yet meandering new novel, it is 1985, and Yale Tishman and his partner, Charlie, are preparing for the memorial service for Nico, a friend who has recently died of AIDS.

The gay community in Chicago where they live has been devastated by this recently discovered disease, as have gay communities across the country. The sense of loss they feel is just beginning to hit them, as they begin hearing more and more about people getting sick, more people living in denial and fear, more people simply disappearing.

As much as the disease and people's attitudes towards it affect him, Yale has other things to focus on. As the development director for a university art gallery, he stumbles on an unexpected windfall: an elderly woman wants to bequeath her collection of 1920s artwork to the gallery. But uncertainty about the artwork's authenticity and familial outrage at the potential value of a gift that could be given to strangers causes Yale and his colleagues more stress than anticipated, at a time when emotions are running high in his relationship with Charlie as well.

With the disease circling ever closer, Yale finds his life changing in many ways, and he begins relying more and more on Fiona, his friend Nico's younger sister. Fiona is wise beyond her years, and finds herself acting as a companion of sorts, and ultimately, power of attorney, for many of her late brother's friends. It's a role that impacts her greatly.

"'The thing is, the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't, it's a judgment on your hubris.'"

In a parallel storyline which takes place 30 years later, Fiona has traveled to Paris to try and find her estranged daughter, who had fled the U.S. after joining a cult. Fiona's relationship with her daughter has always been difficult, but she hopes to make peace with Claire. She stays with an old friend from Chicago, Richard Campo, a photographer who made his name in the 1980s taking pictures of those in the community affected by AIDS, many of whom were his friends and former lovers.

Surrounded by memories both photographic and anecdotal, Fiona is haunted by the ghosts of her friends. She comes to realize how much she sacrificed caring for and loving these men, sacrifices which affected her marriage, her relationship with her daughter, and her life. But given the chance, would she do it over again, or would she put herself and her own life first?

Parts of this book were tremendously moving and poignant, reminding me both of the movie Longtime Companion and, at times, Tim Murphy's gorgeous novel, Christodora (see my review), although this is very different. Makkai did a phenomenal job capturing the emotions, the fears, the culture, and the challenges of those infected with AIDS in the early days of the disease.

I enjoyed Fiona's character and her journey, but I could have done without her protracted search for her daughter and her interaction with another random character, although I like the way her modern-day storyline intertwined with Yale's. And while I loved Yale's character and could have read a book about him alone, I'll admit I could have done without the whole art thing, although it did set other plot points into motion.

I was fortunate to come of age after AIDS had been discovered so I understood the risks and methods of prevention much better than those who came before me. But that doesn't mean that life in the late 1980s and early 1990s weren't without fear and ignorance and prejudice toward those with the disease.

Makkai is a tremendously talented writer, and I've read a few of her previous books. While this book frustrated me at times, I still really found it compelling and emotional, and feel like Makkai did an excellent job examining a bleak time in the LGBT community.

No comments:

Post a Comment