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.