I really wanted to like this book. It was highly acclaimed with glowing reviews from both literary critics and readers, and was the finalist for the 2018 National Book Awards. It had come to me highly recommended by a published author whose writing I greatly admired. Also, the focus of the book was the devastating AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which killed thousands of people in the US as well as in many other countries. The quality of the writing was impeccable, which was almost a given, considering that the book was so well acclaimed. It had all the ingredients that go into making a great book, and I should have liked it.
Sadly, I did not care for it. I doggedly continue to read it until the end rather than abandoning it half-way, hoping that, at some point, I would start to care about the protagonists and the outcome of the story. But it failed to evoke any kind of response, leaving me deeply disappointed and questioning whether it was the book or if it was the loss of my own ability to be empathetic and moved by the tragedy of others.
While the plot of The Great Believers revolves around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it actually has two different timelines that alternate throughout the course of the book. The first timeline starts in 1985 and revolves around a group of gay men in Chicago, who are starting to fall victim to the disease one by one. The main protagonist is Yale, and the book opens with the funeral of his close friend, Nico, who has just died of AIDS. Yale is, at that point, in a steady relationship with another man, Charlie, and while some of the other friends in the group are starting to fall victim to the disease, Yale thinks he is safe as he is in a monogamous relationship and both he and Charlie recently tested negative for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). However, Charlie cheats on him and ends up contracting the virus. Yale is devastated, and at the same time, is terrified that he has been infected as well. He eventually gets himself tested, but it is negative, and Yale is so relieved that he ends up seducing a young intern at the art gallery where he works. In an ironic twist of fate, this intern, who Yale thought was not even aware that he might be gay, ends up being HIV positive himself and infecting Yale. Not everyone who is HIV positive gets AIDS, and Yale is able to hold out for a few more years until he eventually dies in 1992.
Throughout Yale’s ordeal, he has had the love and support of Fiona, the younger sister of the friend who had died of AIDS at the beginning of the book. Fiona is like a sister to Yale as well, and she is by his side until the very end, except on the day he dies—she has delivered her baby prematurely just the day before and while she desperately wanted to be with him when he was so close to dying, it just was not possible for her.
Fiona herself is the protagonist of the second timeline of the book, set in 2015, and she has come to Paris to track down her daughter, Claire — the one who was born the day before Yale died — who has been estranged from her parents for many years after joining a cult and refusing to come home. Fiona, who is by now divorced from Claire’s father but is still on friendly terms with him, comes to Paris to find Claire based on a video a friend had sent her showing someone who looked like Claire on a bridge in Paris, accompanied by a toddler. Fiona hires a private detective to track down Claire, and they are eventually able to find her. She is able to have a reconciliation of sorts with Claire, meet her granddaughter, and decides to move to Paris to be closer to them. She has always felt guilty about not being with Yale the day he died, which subconsciously may have impacted her relationship with her daughter. By the end of the book, with the decision to move to Paris, she feels that she is finally making amends.
Try as I might, I couldn’t really bring these plot lines together, and the alternating of the chapters between the 1985 and 2015 plotlines blunted the impact of both stories for me. Had I perhaps only been immersed in the story of Yale and the tragic unfolding of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it would have touched me more. Granted, I knew little about it prior to this book, and I would imagine the story would be a lot more poignant and searing to those who experienced it, either directly or through someone they loved.
However, I think that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of great fiction is that it is able to give us a visceral experience of a tragedy in human history that we don’t know much about, to make history come alive for us. The Great Believers was not able to do this for me at all.
The title of this book, by the way, comes from a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that is printed at the beginning, but which, I am sorry to say, I found quite meaningless.
All in all, I didn’t like this book, more so because I thought I should like it.
The Great Believers
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Publication Date: June 2018
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.