Twenty-first Century History: The Great Believers | 2018
“They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?”
-The Great Believers, p.184
The Sum of It:
In 1985, Yale is attending the first funeral of a nearly countless number of his friends in Boystown Chicago, the crest of the wave of the AIDS epidemic that would kill thousands of people still ahead. The Great Believers follows Yale's life between the years of 1985 and 1992, and alternates between that era and the year 2015, where Yale's friend Fiona, sister to the friend whose funeral he attends at the novel's opening, has traveled to Paris to find her daughter Claire.
Though Fiona's reflections on the past and how it has shaped her life as it is in 2015 are a significant, though less compelling, portion of the book, the story told from Yale's perspective is dense with feeling and establishes a unique and vivid sense of the time and place that is the heart of this beautiful (and heartbreaking) book. In addition to sharing the heightening terror and sense of loss and displacement Yale and his friends came to feel as increasing numbers of their friends fell ill, Yale's story also encompasses a landmark point in his career as a donor manager for a university art gallery. An elderly woman named Nora, who happens to be the relative of a friend, sends him a letter that he receives on his first day of work, offering the gallery a collection of modern and expressionist pieces from before and after WWI. Her story of love and loss during the first world war comes to be intertwined with his own experience, and at one point Nora declares:
"Everyone that spring just wandered. You'd find a friend in a cafe, and even if you'd hardly known them you'd run and kiss them, and you'd exchange news about who was dead. I don't know how you could compare it to anything else. I don't know how you could." Yale had missed a step. "Compare what?" "Well, you! Your friends! I don't know how it's like anything other than war!”
By the conclusion of these intertwining stories, the reader feels a sense of perspective, appreciation, and loss that could only be brought by a truly gifted storyteller sharing a tale that really matters.
The B & C Treatment:
This book offered a stark and heartrending sense of perspective of a crisis that happened in my country, in my lifetime, and it is an invaluable gift from the author. Whoever you are, you should read it. Makkai's last book, The Hundred-Year House, has been a favorite for a few years, and her gift with painting beautiful portraits of people and places with words left me eager to read her next book, though I knew the subject of The Great Believers was going to be a gut punch. And, spoiler alert, it was, I definitely cried for a solid half hour at the end. But the story is so meaningful, and I'm so grateful I read it, and Makkai's talent at her craft makes this book even more valuable. She leads off the book with an epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald, a quote that's probably familiar to many who've made their way through his catalog:
"We were the great believers, I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved--and who now walk the long stormy summer."
In many ways, this is a war story, a loving, though honest portrait of those lost and a quiet reunion for those who survived. I recently had a chance to visit the city of Berlin with my family, and was struck there by how little I knew about the story of post-WWII Germany, particularly communist East Germany and the Berlin Wall. It's recent history, history that in part took place in my life time, and perhaps because that history is still being written, and perhaps because America often prefers to focus on its own history, it's not something I learned much about in school, and seeing it from the perspective of Berliners brought the fear of the Cold War era it into stark relief. This tender and up-close portrait of the AIDS crisis had a similar effect on my perspective of recent history, particularly the sad history of a marginalized group of people, and how utterly terrifying it must have been to see the people you knew and loved disappearing from your neighborhood, your circle of friends, your home, in increasingly rapid succession with no rescue in sight.
I can't help but think about how many stories about the experiences of LGBT people have come out recently, from books like The Heart's Invisible Furies and The Great Believers to movies or series such as The Imitation Game, The Normal Heart and A Very English Scandal. For so long, the stories of these people were shoved in the background, kept quiet and not told. It's so sad that it has taken this long for these lives to be shared and their experiences highlighted, and it's so sad how many people were lost to this marginalization, either through simple silence, illness, willful ignorance, or even suicide. I'm so grateful for authors and other storytellers, including Makkai, who are pulling these stories out into the light and sharing them with us. I will be thinking about this story for a long time.
You may like The Great Believers if you like:
- Beautifully crafted, emotional stories about the experience of people in the gay community such as The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne, or A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara; or
- Compelling, well written character-based stories of people dealing with crisis situations such as The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, The Nightengale by Kristin Hannah, or All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr