Thank you to the lovely people at Viking Books for my copy of The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. All thoughts and images are my own.
Title: The Great Believers
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genre: Literary fiction
Pub date: June 19, 2018
Read if you like: A Little Life, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Angels in America, The Goldfinch.
This is undoubtedly one of my favorite reads of the year. Makkai is a brilliant writer. She expertly attaches the reader to each of her characters. None of them are perfect, and yet all of them deserve your empathy in one way or another. People make mistakes. Some are forgivable, others are not. While reading this book, I found myself grinning from ear to ear, dropping my jaw in shock, and clutching my chest from heartbreak. It’s beautiful and impossible to put down and horrifically sad.
Makkai has mastered the art of dual plot lines. The suspense grows in each story at an equal rate – while I loved Yale and was reluctant to be taken out of his world, Fiona’s story line never disappointed me. I was equally invested in Yale’s diagnosis as I was in the origin story of the collection of paintings and Fiona’s search for her daughter.
This book is a work of art in and of itself. If you love literary fiction with a twist of historical fiction and an art history splash, you must pick this book up. Let yourself fall into this tale. You may not be able to put it down until the very end – though I found myself so emotionally involved and anxious that I had to take some time to myself before finishing the story. But I finished it soon after and I am so glad I did.
Side note – as I sat down to prepare this review, I was searching my brain for suitable book comparisons. A Little Life and The Heart’s Invisible Furies were clear choices, but I wanted to include something that captured the adventure aspect of art history that this book embodies – the excitement in discovering the backstory behind a paintings history, the intrigue invested in how it has been passed from person to person. The Goldfinch encapsulates that, but it also implies a kind of pain that this book doesn’t have. The Great Believers is not free of pain, but it is a different pain than that of watching children be beaten down time and time again in The Goldfinch. And The Art Forger, while a fun read, doesn’t have the same kind of literary merit. I ended up on these two lists: 11 Novels Every Art History Lover Should Pick Up and Now Is the Time to Read these 11 Novels About Female Artists. Safe to say I’ll be reading my way through a number of these picks this year, and I hope that if this subject interests you too, you’ll check these lists out!
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SYNOPSIS: (AS TOLD BY THE BACK OF THE BOOK)
In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for a Chicago art gallery, is about to pull off an amazing coup by bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings. 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. These two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the ‘80s and the chaos of the modern world as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.