I’ve been carefully thinking of how to construct this review so that it reflects and gives justice to how impactful and special The Great Believers is. I finished this book over the weekend and my heart is still heavy and still daydreaming about Yale, Nico, Charlie, and every other man unfortunately affected by the Chicago AIDS crisis.
While the characters in this book are fictional, the stories are not. When HIV and AIDS hit the US hard in the 80s, it did not discriminate against Chicago. Boystown and the gay community truly did not know what was coming. The Great Believers follows a group of gay men living in Chicago in the 80s-90s, some of whom are friends and some lovers, as they learn what AIDS looks like firsthand. This disease was very new to the city and went without proper research, treatment, or funding. A disease that rolled through Chicago like a tsunami inevitably destroying whomever in its path, we learn how supportive the gay community was (still is) and how important it was for them to stay together when everything was destined to fall apart. The book switches between Chicago 80s thru 90s to Paris 2015 as we learn to understand the connection between Yale and Nico from the past and Fiona in the present. Two completely different yet related stories come together absolutely seamlessly in The Great Believers as we learn the impact this disease carried over decades of time.
“That’s the difference between optimism and naivety. No one in this room is naïve. Naïve people haven’t been through real trials, so they think it could never happen to them. Optimists have been through it already and we keep getting up each day because we believe we can keep it from happening again. Or we trick ourselves into thinking it” – The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
I will admit, I was not very educated on HIV/AIDS. Sure, I know that Magic Johnson has been living with the disease and that it can be shared among bodily fluids, but beyond that I was blind. I was blind to what AIDS looks like, what and who AIDS destroys, and how deadly it can be. I also took for granted modern day medicine; we are currently able to stabilize HIV/AIDS due to medical research and funding but those living in the 80s-90s did not have that luxury. I was in complete shock how men were quite literally dropping like flies from the disease. Rebecca Makkai so vividly placed the images of the Chicago AIDS crisis is my mind that it felt as if I were a witness. It helped quite a bit that I live in Chicago only a few minutes from Boystown and every Chicago reference I was familiar with (an added bonus that Makkai actually LIVES in Chicago). This book was written with such emotion and heart that it made me feel ALL the feels. Seriously, ask my boyfriend as we were driving to/from Ohio how many times I would laugh out loud at the humorous parts or gasp in disbelief as I sat in the passenger seat with tears rolling down my cheeks because I had to read about yet another friend and lover who had fallen to AIDS.
You know those books that you just can’t stop thinking about and/or talking about? Yep, this is one of them for me. I know, I’m a nerd. All weekend I would randomly bring up questions and comments about The Great Believers to whoever was around, or maybe even out loud to myself. I love books that I FEEL with but also books that I THINK and learn and ponder with. This book provided all of this and more. You bet as soon as I finished (I was SO sad to be done with this book) and after reading the Author’s Note, I pulled up my Goodreads account to check out a book referenced by Makkai or any others written on the AIDS crisis.
In Makkai’s final words, she expresses that this book was tough for many reasons; the emotional and heavy subject but also because there isn’t a ton of literature about this era and crisis. She vocalizes if she can spark interest in her readers to educate themselves on this epidemic that has impacted so many cities and loved ones, then she has done her job.
If I could give this book 100 stars, I would. In fact, I will. 100 stars to The Great Believer, quite possibly the most influential and heartfelt novel I have ever read.