THE GREAT BELIEVERS—Heart Wrenching, Hopeful

posted in: Let's Just Read | 8

I was a fan of Rebecca Makkai even before I picked up her new novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS.

Makkai was a featured author at the 2016 Washington Island Literary Festival and taught a workshop in the boathouse on our property. I was traveling the month before, and I was delighted to find her short story collection LOVE SONGS FOR WARTIME in an airport bookshop. Intent on boning up, instead I was blown away. Her stories are some of the best I’ve ever read. Her novels THE BORROWER and HUNDRED YEAR HOUSE are good, too, but THE GREAT BELIEVERS is her best production yet.

Set in mid-1980s Chicago (and Door County, WI) and in current-day Paris, the story unfolds as the health crisis eventually known as AIDS begins taking its toll on gay men living and working in the Chicago arts and culture scene. In Paris decades later, the sister of one of the first men in the group of friends to die, now in her 50s, searches for her estranged daughter and grandchild, reconnecting with survivors of the AIDs epidemic she has not seen since her youth.

When stories about the deadly virus began to appear in national media, I was in my mid-thirties, living on a farm in Madison County (raising kids and writing how-to books on quilting), far from cultural centers like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco—but there were casualties in my industry as well. Quilters and non-quilters alike crafted panels commemorating their lost brothers, sons, and friends for the AIDS QUILT, which became the largest public art project in history.

I read THE GREAT BELIEVERS in five days, on my trip to and from New York—as if the reading experience were a set of parentheses around my journey to meet my literary agent. I started the book as my flight lifted off from Des Moines and devoured the last page back in Iowa, in Baggage Claim, as my suitcase made several trips around the conveyer belt. Through characters so well crafted they became real to me, Makkai wrenched my heart again and again as the circle of Chicago friends shrank with each death.

Many novels popular in recent years would be correctly described as “dark,” their protagonists victims of sinister, even depraved, antagonists. (I’m thinking of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, GONE GIRL.) The fiction I admire is of a different sort, the sort created by Makkai in THE GREAT BELIEVERS. In this magnificent novel, Makkai gives us characters whose loyalty to their friends elevates them, for me, to unforgettability. Their pain and loss, their love and loyalty, their nostalgia—all are part of the human condition. Makkai makes me glad, rather than ashamed, to be a member of the human race.

8 Responses

  1. Jean Walker
    | Reply

    Love this, Marianne!

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Jean, thanks for reading my review. Hope you’ll check out Makkai’s book!

  2. Suzanne Ritchie
    | Reply

    Thanks for the review. will be adding this to my Book Club list of suggestions. We are always looking for good books to read and discuss.
    suzanne

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Suzanne, thank you. THE GREAT BELIEVERS would make an excellent book club read. I’ll provide you with more suggestions in coming months. Perhaps some future day, when my own MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY is in print, you’ll choose it for your club!

  3. Deb Rowden
    | Reply

    thanks for the review – my brother died of AIDS in 1991 so i’m one of those sisters … I’ll read this soon.

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Deb, my condolences. A longtime friend of mine lost a brother in the very early days, just a few years before my friend and I became friends.

  4. Elizabeth Pierson
    | Reply

    It looks like another good book to put on my list. Thank you for the suggestion.

  5. Glenda Johnstone
    | Reply

    What a walk down memory lane for me, Marianne. I was a nurse working in the suburbs of Chicago when the AIDS epidemic hit. After a few years, I quit my job and went to work in Chicago for a missionary group of nurses. It was one of the blessings of my life to care for the young people coming down with AIDS. I met so many lovely souls, and it was my privilege to care for them. We worked on some additions for the original AIDS quilt, sewing the names of some of our patients. Can’t wait to read this book.

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