The Great Believers is, as far as I know, among the first novels to chronicle the AIDS epidemic from its initial outbreak to the present—among the first, that is, to convey the terrors and tragedies of the epidemic’s early years as well as its course and its repercussions over the decades. Makkai puts the epidemic (which, of course, has not yet ended) into historical perspective without distancing it or blunting its horrors ... It would be futile to try to convey the novel’s considerable population, or its plots and subplots, though both population and plots are ingeniously interwoven. The question 'What happens next?' remains pressing from the first page to the last ... Although I can’t help wishing the two stories had worked together more potently, that doesn’t detract from the deep emotional impact of The Great Believers, nor does it diminish Makkai’s accomplishment. She has borne unblinking witness to history and to a horrific episode already in danger—among Americans, that is—of becoming a horror story out of the past.
The Great Believers brings a whole era back into view...with the the book's 1985 narrative..offering a grand fusion of the past and the present ... Makkai is a wily, seductive writer...who brings sympathy to these vivid and varied personalities ... it's remarkably alive despite all the loss it encompasses.
...a heartbreaking meditation on AIDS, loss, and friendship ... By deftly weaving together Yale’s, Nora’s, and Fiona’s stories, Makkai finds surprising resonances across time and experience, offering a timely commentary on the price of memory and the role of art in securing legacies at risk of being lost ... it’s tempting to see The Great Believers as the latest entry in the genre of straight women writing about gay male trauma ... Makkai’s focus here is on recuperating the overlooked history of the women caretakers ... What makes The Great Believers great is Makkai’s skill at uncovering facets of a historical record many of us may feel we already comprehensively understand. What makes it an enduring work of fiction is the elegance with which it transmutes the quotidian...into an evocative time capsule that captures the essence of an entire life.
Makkai spikes a sadly familiar historical narrative with kaleidoscopic compassion ... Makkai is intuitive, evading traps of sentimentality. She leans on her established strengths — realistic characters, emotional complexity — and in the context of this 80s milieu, their potential is bracingly realized. Her relaxed prose flows; her fascination with human behavior enhances the book’s vivid ensemble. Makkai’s writing even assumes an effortless sweep, plunging readers into a saga of mesmerizing intimacy ... Makkai has a real feel for grief, achingly describing the city she’s long known inside and out as it’s suddenly permeating loss. You don’t just see the ghosts of her Believers — you spend time with them, learn their flaws and virtues and darkest fears, cry at their funerals right alongside those who’ve known them for decades.
Makkai is very good at conjuring a gay community enacting the usual dramas of love and lust and ambition and jealousy in a world where all the usual dramas suddenly can carry a fatal charge ... There are plenty of ensemble dramas out there, good ones, too. What might distinguish this one from the lot is Makkai’s focus on art and its parallels in memory. It is through Yale’s work running a gallery that we encounter Nora, a relative of Fiona’s, whose personal art collection from the period around World War I becomes a metaphor for how much of life, and in particular love, is preserved or transformed or lost over time.
...[an] ambitious new novel ... It’s a timely reminder that living through crisis, whether personal or political – and sometimes both – sends shockwaves across generations ... These are absorbing individuals to care about, rather than hedonistic caricatures painted in broad brushstrokes ... there’s a lot going on in The Great Believers, and while Makkai doesn’t always manage to make all the plates spin perfectly, she remains thoughtful and consistent throughout about the importance of memory and legacy, and the pain that can come with survival.
Makkai’s writing isn’t the kind that calls attention to itself, allowing the people, emotions, personal incidents and public occurrences of her book to take shape with the force of urgency and the authentic, the grievousness of deceit—by lovers, by families, by hope—and the generosity of romance, sorrow, growth and wonder. She unleashes a mathematics as compelling as her attention to the contradictions within personalities ... She packs her deft array of characters full of surprises that can burst into narrative drama or show their hands gradually in self-revelation, and reconciliation. There is no question that love, no matter how messy or maligned, holds its own, even longer than the plenitude of angers Makkai painfully details and ignites.
The writing in this novel is lovely ... In addition to the power of individual lines, there is a power in the surprising tension that builds through the story ... The stories overlap because of the bond between the two main characters of Fiona and Yale from the start, but Makkai finds clever ways to keep those connections growing between not just the two of them, but also among them and characters like Nora and Nico, Fiona’s brother ... This is a book about loss, but it is also about a sense of continuance through the stories we tell, their tellers, and the lessons we learn from them. Those lost will remain in the minds of these characters and, now, in the minds of the reader. The Great Believers is devastating and beautiful, and very worth remembering.
'She has, in fact, done a superb job of capturing a group of friends in a particular time and place with humor and compassion. Conversations among her gay male characters feel very real — not too flamboyant, not too serious, always morbidly witty. It's hard not to get drawn into this circle of promising young men as they face their brutally premature extinction. Having said that, long parts of The Great Believers drag and sink into banality ... In the final chapters, the character of Fiona also deepens and grabs the reader ... The final pages of The Great Believers are tear-jerkers, full of a hard-earned joy and an almost cathartic expression of grief and remembrance. (To be more specific would be to spoil.) Makkai's novel is a strong reminder that when writers attempt to tell the story of other lives with skill, care and compassion, the results can serve as a kind of gift to the subjects, because they say so clearly, 'I have seen you.'
The Great Believers opens aptly, with a funeral, in the Chicago of 1985 — when AIDS was still badly understood, ineffectively treated and raging out of control, terrorizing gay communities. There we meet young art gallery development director Yale Tishman, and his inscrutable lover, Charlie, who runs a feisty alternative newsweekly ... compulsively readable ... her prose a relentless engine mowing back and forth across decades, zooming in on sublest physical and emotional nuances of dozens of characters.
... a heat-wrenching novel filled with a large cast of characters astounded by their circumstances. It’s sprawling narrative includes Paris between the wars, modern art, contemporary cults, and an HIV virus that isn’t going away ... Makkai, who did an enormous amount of research for the novel, puts her characters through the ringer. When things seem like they can’t get any worse, they do; yet they carry on. It’s a novel about hope and it’s flipside resilience.
In Makkai's ambitious third novel...she carefully reconstructs 1980s Chicago, WWI-era and present day Paris...with intimately portrayed characters fighting painful pasts...to find joy in the present. A tribute to enduring forces of love and art, over everything.
Rebecca Makkai is a skilled and versatile writer whose work often contains a quietly comic edge. Her ambitious new novel, The Great Believers, is a change of pace, exploring the effects of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community in Chicago ... The Great Believers reminds us of the powerful connection between fiction and empathic imagination.
Rebecca Makkai’s engrossing new novel, The Great Believers, is set mostly in Chicago and Paris, and a little bit in rural Wisconsin, but as I read it I kept thinking of London — of an oil painting that’s part of the Tate collection ... The persistence, unrequitedness, and elusiveness of love suffuse these pages. So does sex — tantalizing, overpowering, elemental, potentially fatal. We feel its danger keenly, particularly for Yale, whose HIV-negative status may have worsened. Watching him tiptoe through this minefield, when hope of survival is so minuscule, we can’t help begging: Please, not him.
...when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed 'the line between allyship and appropriation' ... (but) her rich portraits of an array of big personalities and her affecting depiction of random, horrific death faced with varying degrees of gallantry make this tender, keening novel an impressive act of imaginative empathy. As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving ... an unbeatable fictional combination.
In 1985 Chicago, 30-something Yale Tishman...works tirelessly to acquire a set of 1920s paintings that would put his workplace on the map. He watches his close-knit circle of friends die from AIDS, and once he learns that his longtime partner, Charlie, has tested positive after having an affair, Yale goes into a tailspin, worried he may also test positive for the virus. ... (an) emotional journey through the 1980s AIDS crisis and its residual effects on the contemporary lives of survivors. This novel will undoubtedly touch the hearts and minds of (its) readers.
The Great Believers shifts between two narratives and time periods as it chronicles the AIDS epidemic in Chicago during the 1980s. The first explores Yale’s life in the 1980s where he lives with his partner, Charlie Keene, editor and founder of the gay newspaper Out Loud; a life where attending the funerals of their friends has become disturbingly normal. The second narrative details the life of Fiona (Nico’s sister) in 2015, where she lives with the traumas and wounds of the epidemic that claimed her brother and many close friends … Fiona’s narrative provides a well-rendered contrast and complement to the stories and problems that arise in Yale’s narrative. The two storylines work together like a duet, a call-and-response song, where an issue rises in one and can concludes in the other … Makkai wonderfully depicts all the different iterations of doomed love, demonstrating the ways in which love can be destructive, the ways it can permanently scar. For Yale love has jeopardized his health; and he sometimes feels as though the entire community is being punished for practicing love on their own terms … Fiona’s divorce and her antipathy towards it derives from a manufactured and entrenched guilt. Her love is not legislated or reproached in the same ways her friend’s and brother’s loves are—if no one in her life was allowed a blissful, unblemished love life, how could she have it? With what right can she? As thus her attempts are also doomed.