PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BOOK OF 2018
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE WINNER
ALA CARNEGIE MEDAL WINNER
THE STONEWALL BOOK AWARD WINNER
Soon to Be a Major Television Event, optioned by Amy Poehler
“A page turner . . . An absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it’s like to live during times of crisis.” —The New York Times Book Review
A dazzling novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy and loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris
In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.
Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.
Named a Best Book of 2018 by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, NPR, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, The Seattle Times, Bustle, Newsday, AM New York, BookPage, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Lit Hub, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, New York Public Library and Chicago Public Library
The Great Believers is a page turner... among the first novels to chronicle the AIDS epidemic from its initial outbreak to the present—among the first to convey the terrors and tragedies of the epidemic’s early years as well as its course and repercussions...An absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it’s like to live during times of crisis."
—The New York Times Book Review
“Makkai knits themes of loss, betrayal, friendship and survival into a powerful story of people struggling to keep their humanity in dire circumstances.”
“Cultural revolutions of the past painfully reverberate in Rebecca Makkai’s deft third novel,
The Great Believers, which captures both the devastation of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and the emotional aftershocks of those losses.”
"A striking, emotional journey... Makkai creates a powerful, unforgettable meditation, not on death, but rather on the power and gift of life. This novel will undoubtedly touch the hearts and minds of readers.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Great Believers asks big questions about redemption, tragedy, and connection. Makkai has written her most ambitious novel yet.”
The Great Believers soars…magnificent…Makkai has full command of her multi-generational perspective, and by its end,
The Great Believers offers a grand fusion of the past and the present, the public and the personal. It’s remarkably alive despite all the loss it encompasses.”
"Beautiful, tender, harrowing... [
The Great Believers] is a vivid, passionate, heart-wrenching story."
—Wall Street Journal
“Compulsively readable…a relentless engine mowing back and forth across decades, zooming in on subtlest physical and emotional nuances of dozens of characters, missing no chance to remind us what’s at stake.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“At turns heartbreaking and hopeful, the novel brings the first years of the AIDS epidemic into very immediate view, in a manner that will seem nostalgic to some and revelatory to others…Makkai''s sweeping fourth novel shows the compassion of chosen families and the tension and distance that can exist in our birth ones.”
"Sure to become a classic Chicago novel…a deft, harrowing novel that’s as beautiful as its cover.” —
Chicago Review of Books
“The latest novel from the stunningly versatile Makkai…Focused on a group of friends, lovers, and family outcasts, the book highlights the way tragic illness shifts the courses of people’s lives—and how its touch forever lingers on those left behind.”
“A devastating contemplation of love and loss…evokes the epidemic''s horrors, yes, but also the profound acts of generosity it sparked.”
—Oprah.com, “O’s Top Books of Summer”
“Deeply moving…Makkai does an excellent job of capturing the jaded, ironic and affectionately jibing small talk of a group of cultured gay friends in the Reagan era…[Captures] 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.”
“Two distinct narratives intertwine ingeniously…The stories meet up to heartbreaking effect.”
—New York Magazine
“A poignant, historical journey through a virus’s outbreak and legacy.”—
Conde Nast Traveler
“Rebecca Makkai’s beautiful (literally—look at that cover!) novel takes us to an art gallery in Chicago at the height of the AIDS crisis. From Chicago to Paris, THE GREAT BELIEVERS is a sweeping story of multi-generational trauma and the solitude that the AIDS epidemic created, as an entire generation was decimated by the virus.”
"With its broad time span and bedrock of ferocious, loving friendships, [
The Great Believers] might remind readers of Hanya Yanagihara’s
A Little Life…though it is, overall, far brighter than that novel. As her intimately portrayed characters wrestle with painful pasts and fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come, Makkai carefully reconstructs 1980s Chicago, WWI-era and present day Paris, and scenes of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. A tribute to the enduring forces of love and art, over everything."
—Booklist (starred review)
“To believe in something is to have faith, and Makkai dispenses it fiercely, in defiance of understandable nihilism and despair—faith in what’s right, in the good in others, in better outcomes, in time’s ability not to heal but to make something new.”
—National Book Review
“Another ambitious change of pace for the versatile and accomplished [Rebecca] Makkai… 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.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Rebecca Makkai is the author of
The Hundred-Year House, which won the Novel of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, and
Music for Wartime. Her work has appeared in
The Best American Short Stories,
Tin House, among others. She lives outside Chicago with her husband and two daughters.
Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?” Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”
The closer they got to Richard’s house, the more friends they spotted heading the same way. Some were dressed nicely, as if this were the funeral itself; others wore jeans, leather jackets. It must only be relatives up at the church, the parents’ friends, the priest. If there were sandwiches laid out in some reception room, most were going to waste.
Yale found the bulletin from last night’s vigil in his pocket and folded it into something resembling the cootie catchers his childhood friends used to make on buses—the ones that told your fortune (“Famous!” or “Murdered!”) when you opened a flap. This one had no flaps, but each quadrant bore words, some upside down, all truncated by the folds: “Father George H. Whitb”; “beloved son, brother, rest in”; “All things bright and”; “lieu of flowers, donatio.” All of which, Yale supposed, did tell Nico’s fortune. Nico had been bright and beautiful. Flowers would do no good.
The houses on this street were tall, ornate. Pumpkins still out on every stoop but few carved faces—artful arrangements, rather, of gourds and Indian corn. Wrought iron fences, swinging gates. When they turned onto the walkway to Richard’s (a noble brownstone sharing walls with noble neighbors), Charlie whispered: “His wife decorated the place. When he was married. In ’72.” Yale laughed at the worst possible moment, just as they passed a gravely smiling Richard holding open his own door. It was the idea of Richard living a hetero life in Lincoln Park with some decoratively inclined woman. Yale’s image of it was slapstick: Richard stuffing a man into the closet when his wife dashed back for her Chanel clutch.
Yale pulled himself together and turned back to Richard. He said, “You have a beautiful place.” A wave of people came up behind them, pushing Yale and Charlie into the living room.
Inside, the decor didn’t scream 1972 so much as 1872: chintz sofas, velvety chairs with carved arms, oriental rugs. Yale felt Charlie squeeze his hand as they dove into the crowd.
Nico had made it clear there was to be a party. “If I get to hang out as a ghost, you think I wanna see sobbing? I’ll haunt you. You sit there crying, I’ll throw a lamp across the room, okay? I’ll shove a poker up your ass, and not in a good way.” If he’d died just two days ago, they wouldn’t have had it in them to follow through. But Nico died three weeks back, and the family delayed the vigil and funeral until his grandfather, the one no one had seen in twenty years, could fly in from Havana. Nico’s mother was the product of a brief, pre-Castro marriage between a diplomat’s daughter and a Cuban musician—and now this ancient Cuban man was crucial to the funeral planning, while Nico’s lover of three years wasn’t even welcome at the church tonight. Yale couldn’t think about it or he’d fume, which wasn’t what Nico wanted.
In any case, they’d spent three weeks mourning and now Richard’s house brimmed with forced festivity. There were Julian and Teddy, for instance, waving down from the second-story railing that encircled the room. Another floor rose above that, and an elaborate round skylight presided over the whole space. It was more of a cathedral than the church had been. Someone shrieked with laughter far too close to Yale’s ear.
Charlie said, “I believe we’re meant to have a good time.” Charlie’s British accent, Yale was convinced, emerged more in sarcasm.
Yale said, “I’m waiting on the go-go dancers.”
Richard had a piano, and someone was playing “Fly Me to the Moon.” What the hell were they all doing?
A skinny man Yale had never seen before bear-hugged Charlie. An out-of-towner, he guessed, someone who’d lived here but moved away before Yale came on the scene. Charlie said, “How in hell did you get younger?” Yale waited to be introduced, but the man was telling an urgent story now about someone else Yale didn’t know. Charlie was the hub of a lot of wheels.
A voice in Yale’s ear: “We’re drinking Cuba libres.” It was Fiona, Nico’s little sister, and Yale turned to hug her, to smell her lemony hair. “Isn’t it ridiculous?” Nico had been proud of the Cuban thing, but if he knew the chaos his grandfather’s arrival would cause, he’d have vetoed the beverage choice.
Fiona had told them all, last night, that she wasn’t going to the funeral—that she’d be here instead—but still it was jarring to see her, to know she’d followed through. But then she’d written off her family as thoroughly as they’d written Nico off in the years before his illness. (Until, in his last days, they’d claimed him, insisting he die in the suburbs in an ill-equipped hospital with nice wallpaper.) Her mascara was smudged. She had discarded her shoes, but wobbled as if she still wore heels.
Fiona handed her own drink to Yale—half full, an arc of pink on the rim. She touched a finger to the cleft of his upper lip. “I still can’t believe you shaved it off. I mean, it looks good. You look sort of—”
She laughed, and then she said, “Oh. Oh! They’re not making you, are they? At Northwestern?” Fiona had one of the best faces for concern Yale had ever seen—her eyebrows hurried together, her lips vanished straight into her mouth—but he wondered how she had any emotion left to spare.
He said, “No. It’s—I mean, I’m the development guy. I’m talking to a lot of older alumni.”
“To get money?”
“Money and art. It’s a strange dance.” Yale had taken the job at Northwestern’s new Brigg Gallery in August, the same week Nico got sick, and he still wasn’t sure where his responsibilities started and ended. “I mean, they know about Charlie. My colleagues do. It’s fine. It’s a gallery, not a bank.” He tasted the Cuba libre. Inappropriate for the third of November, but then the afternoon was unseasonably warm, and this was exactly what he needed. The soda might even wake him up.
“You had a real Tom Selleck thing going. I hate when blond men grow a mustache; it’s peach fuzz. Dark-haired guys, though, that’s my favorite. You should’ve kept it! But it’s okay, because now you look like Luke Duke. In a good way. No, like Patrick Duffy!” Yale couldn’t laugh, and Fiona tilted her head to look at him seriously.
He felt like sobbing into her hair, but he didn’t. He’d been cultivating numbness all day, hanging onto it like a rope. If this were three weeks ago, they could have simply cried together. But everything had scabbed over, and now there was this idea of party on top of everything else, this imperative to be, somehow, okay. Merry.
And what had Nico been to Yale? Just a good friend. Not family, not a lover. Nico was, in fact, the first real friend Yale had made when he moved here, the first he’d sat down with just to talk, and not at a bar, not shouting over music. Yale had adored Nico’s drawings, would take him out for pancakes and help him study for his GED and tell him he was talented. Charlie wasn’t interested in art and neither was Nico’s lover, Terrence, and so Yale would take Nico to gallery shows and art talks, introduce him to artists. Still: If Nico’s little sister was holding it together this well, wasn’t Yale obliged to be in better shape?
Fiona said, “It’s hard for everyone.”