“We were the great believers.
I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”
Rebecca Makkai’s great believers are those who faced the trauma of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the mid-1980s, part of a lost generation of men who were the first to be affected by the deadly disease that decimated the gay community. With gentle honesty, she shows us these men — their lives, and their dreams of love, a family, a home of their own. They faced the cruelty and stigmatism of a mysterious disease that brought loss after loss of loved ones, with no hope of a cure.
The main character, Yale, has a rewarding career as an art curator, but his life is thrown into chaos after a brief encounter with a young man and a major betrayal by his partner. Then he meets Nora, an elderly woman who was part of the art world in Paris in the 1920s, who offers a valuable trove of original art that could make Yale a major player in the 1980s art world.
If he can pull it off.
If he survives to pull it off.
A second story line follows Nora’s great niece Fiona into middle age and is a conduit for the stories of another lost generation, the survivors of World War I. Fiona is also the sister of the first man to die of AIDS in the novel and is the figurative little sister of his entire group of friends. In Paris, she reconnects with other survivors of that Chicago group while she searchers for evidence of Nora’s history as a muse, model, and artist. She uncovers the stories of the men who died in the war, or who survived mentally and physically damaged. She’s also there searching for her daughter, who had joined a cult, but escaped and then disappeared.
That’s a lot of stories for a reader to digest.
Makkai says her initial goal was to write a book about Nora looking back at her own history, but the 1980s section took on a life of its own. Ultimately the AIDS story line became the book’s primary focus, but Makkai didn’t want to give up on Nora. The result, though, is a novel that goes in so many directions with so many characters the reader sometimes loses the narrative.
Still, Makkai did remarkable research and her writing is so strong we feel the 1980’s characters’ trauma, appreciating the horror they faced in a way we might not have done in real time. Makkai gives AIDS a staggering humanity.
She says the book is in many ways a war novel. As one character in 1980s Chicago notes, “This is a war, it is. It’s like you’ve been in the trenches for seven years. And no one’s gonna understand that. No one’s gonna give you a Purple Heart.”
— Pat Prijatel