The Great Believers: Review

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The Great Believers
by Rebecca Makkai
Viking

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard

So often in both fiction and non we are given a perspective on the AIDS pandemic as it affected the cities of New York and San Francisco. The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai, gives a perspective on the crisis in another major city, the city of Chicago. Not only does it give us a story of a city and a group of friends and family in the mid-eighties, at the height of AIDS, it tells a story of one of that group, Fiona, who has carried her loss into her present-day life as she deals with her search for her estranged daughter.

Fiona loses a brother and many of her friends in the mid-eighties to the scourge of AIDS. Also dealing with these losses, and a breakup and his own eventual diagnosis, is Yale, a best friend of Fiona’s brother Nico. Makkai captures this time vividly and with much emotion. She engagingly brings to life a large extended family of young gay men who rely on each other for support Their lives and losses are documented with warmth. Many of these men have been rejected by their traditional families and carry that loss with them as they deal with disease and death.

Also vividly wrought is Fiona’s emotional journey to Paris to find her estranged adult daughter and granddaughter, whom she has spotted in a photograph by chance. It’s an ancillary narrative told in Makkai’s emotional prose and we see just how those early losses compel Fiona in her present search. The Great Believers is a rich and satisfying narrative of two distinct points in its characters’ lives. Many of Fiona’s friends don’t make it—they are lost in time—but they are always with her and with the reader. Rich in characters as full of life as any lost or still hanging on, this is a novel of great feeling and clarity.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he writes reviews for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.