The Great Believers

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a crier. I cry at movies. I cry at TV shows. I will even cry at commercials!  But for some reason, it takes a lot to make me cry at books.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading one….until now.  And my crying was intense and prolonged. It was a sustained cry for the last 100 pages.   It was not cute.  This book, while not perfect, is one of the best books I have ever read.  I finished it in 3 sittings because I was so invested in the story and characters.  I am still thinking about it and will continue to think about it for several more days.  I am hesitant to recommend it due to the heaviness of the plot but if you’re looking for a book that will rip your heart out and take your breath away, I can’t recommend this book enough.

From Goodreads:  In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.  Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.

I will try my best to keep this review spoiler free, even though so much of what I thought about this book can only be discussed by giving away some plot points. Before starting this book, I knew it wasn’t going to be a happy read.  Even during the happy moments, I had a feeling of unease while reading.  There were numerous times when my heart sunk and I got a pit in my stomach.   You would think I would hate a book that made me feel this way but it was the exact opposite.  I was so invested in the characters and their experiences that my reactions were being felt because I cared about what happened to them.  There is one scene in particular where my heart shattered and I was very distraught, despite having a pretty good guess about what was going to happen. I was still upset when my prediction came true.  This is the sign of a great book.  

There were so many themes running through this book, some more prominent than others but all essential to telling the story.  The idea that the little moments in life sometimes have the biggest impact.  The dread and despair of outliving your friends and being the one left behind. The unimaginable burden of being the person who survives and has to live your life with the memory of your loved ones along with the horror of having to live with the mistakes you made along the way.   The parallels between living through a world war and the AIDS epidemic.  All of these themes came together brilliantly.  I read some reviews that found the back and forth between 1980’s Chicago and 2015 Paris to be unnecessary.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Without the Fiona parts in 2015, the reader can’t begin to see the toll that horrible time took on the people who lived through it, nor would the reader be able to feel the emotional impact of the crisis.  While I was definitely more invested in the 1980’s parts, the 2015 sections still served a purpose to the overall story. 

I hope by now you can tell how much I loved this book. There were however, some small things I didn’t like.   Yale makes some decisions towards the middle of the book that I found deviated a bit from his character.  I understand why Makkai decided to go in that direction but it didn’t sit right with me.  The other issue I had was that I wanted a little bit more background on Claire and Fiona.  I don’t think there was enough for me to fully understand why Claire acted the way she did.  Again, these are tiny, minute issues and I fully admit I am nit-picking.

I can’t remember the last time a book affected me in such a wonderful, agonizing way. I happened to finish the book around 11pm and found myself thinking about it so much when I went to bed that I had to make notes in my phone so I wouldn’t forget anything I was thinking.  The only reason I would hesitate to recommend this book is the subject matter but I truly believe everyone should read it if they can.  You won’t regret it.

Favorite Quotes:

“But when someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory—letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I had so much love for him, even if it was a complicated love, and where is all that love supposed to go? He was gone, so it couldn’t change, it couldn’t turn to indifference. I was stuck with all that love.”

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes. Some stupid thing you did when you were nineteen, the one time you weren’t careful. And it turns out that was the most important day of your life.”

Author: Rebecca Makkai

Published:  June 19th, 2018

Rating: 5 Stars

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