Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Book Review

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

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Author info.

When I was in fourth grade, I did a research project on AIDS. I recall making a clay model of the HIV virus, but I don’t remember much else about it—including why I picked that topic at all. I think I was going through my Guinness Book of World Records phase and was fascinated by the biggest/smallest/most/best of everything, and AIDS was, I guess, the “worst” disease I knew of at the time. The irony is that I don’t think I did any research into its connection with LGBT history. I certainly didn’t understand my own sexual orientation at that age, didn’t know that I would one day identify with a community whose history includes the AIDS crisis. And until I read The Great Believers last week, the extent of my knowledge of that period amounted to memorizing all the lyrics to Rent. This book opened a new portal for me.

The Great Believers opens in 1985 Chicago at the memorial service for a young man named Nico, who has just died of AIDS. The story centers on two main characters, Yale (Nico’s friend) and Fiona (Nico’s younger sister), though it chronicles the lives of the whole group through the hight of the AIDS crisis in America. Chapters from the 80’s are interspersed with chapters taking place in 2015 Paris, where Fiona is tracking down her estranged daughter. In both time periods, the characters grapple with how their relationships and lives are defined by the impact of AIDS.

Author Rebecca Makkai invites the reader to feel the emotions along with her characters: hope and loss, joy and devastation, excitement and disgust. The way she weaves the two tales together is beautiful and heartbreaking, and the book raises some important questions: Who gets to tell a person’s story after their gone? How do we deal with generational trauma? Who is guilty and who is responsible? How do we stay on our paths when the world tries to interrupt us? Is something only a problem when it’s our problem? What does “family” mean?

The Great Believers also delivers a history of the AIDS crisis and of gay life in Chicago at the time. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Makkai names the sources she used and people she interviewed to portray as historically accurate a depiction as she could, albeit a fictionalized one. She recognizes, too, that she writes on the line between appropriation and allyship, since this is not “her” story, but I don’t think that should stop anyone from reading. Makkai is an artist who presents the narratives in ways that give readers today access to others’ lives.

One of the most poignant moments of the book for me happens when Yale reflects back on the life of his community. He yearns for the pre-AIDS days, which felt like a “golden age” in gay life—though he didn’t know it at the time. I wondered as I read this how it would compare to today.

I am legally married to my husband, and I serve as a rabbi of a large synagogue. I am currently interviewing for a new position, and not once have I had any hesitation about revealing the gender of my spouse to potential employers. I received the recommendation to read The Great Believers from another married gay couple, with whom (and with their adorable son) Ari and I had brunch today. I have family and friends who care for me and actively supported me as I was coming out. What would Yale think of knowing that someone like me could live openly (and feel so blessed) in 2020?

I recognize that I have a relatively privileged experience. There are plenty of LGBT people in America and around the world who experience many more obstacles, discriminatory acts, and antagonistic relationships than I have. But I can’t help but wondering along with The Great Believers: Am I living in a golden age? Will it come to an end, or will things continue to get better?

At least I can be grateful that, as far as I know, AIDS has played no real role in my life beyond my fourth-grade research project. Well, that and the fact that, as a “precaution” against spreading HIV, gay men still can’t donate blood in the United States without a year of celibacy first.

I highly recommend The Great Believers. Fall in love with the characters, and get your heart broken by them. The story is worth every page.

Last summer, I also read Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter. I pick it up in honor of the 50th anniversary of that event, about which I knew nearly nothing. It’s an informative and moving history, which I would recommend as well.

And then, if you want a completely different kind of LGBT story, read Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. The bisexual son of the first female president falls in love with the gay prince of England. Adventures (some quite steamy) ensue. Not exactly high literature, but it’s quite a fun bit of escapism.

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