The Great Believers
It feels like an appropriate time to read about a pandemic. Many describe how attention can wander during the quarantine, despite circumstances creating an optimal time for reading. Hours and hours of reading. Hours that are better spent reading quality fiction and non-fiction than overdosing on the news. The clever trick is to discover a book that can keep your attention, and so if the plot studies the zeitgeist of the AIDS pandemic, odds are good that the book is well poised to be an attention keeper.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Great BelieversThe Great Believers explores life in urban Chicago during the mid eighties as a tight knit group of mostly fabulous friends navigate dating, careers, family and the spike of AIDS in their gay community. A young gallery worker named Yale manages his complicated love life and attempts to procure a rare and newsworthy donation and installation. The plot intersperses Yale’s experience with the journey of a Fiona, middle aged woman in the present day, searching in Paris for her estranged daughter. Fiona and Yale were close friends back in the day, and both were devastated when Fiona’s brother, Nico, succumbed to AIDS.
It can feel therapeutic to create diversion from one pandemic by immersing one’s self in the tale of another. Makkai’s characters are believable, especially in their complexity and contradictions, struggling to navigate sex and relationships during a deadly stretch when so little was understood about the virus. Reading about Yale and his contemporaries’ risks and losses while sorting out what social distancing will look like in the weeks and months ahead, this book takes on a deeper meaning.
From a psychological perspective, Makkai understands the powerful pull of inter-generational patterns. Fiona insists on cutting off from her parents because they were not supportive of Nico’s sexuality. They are ashamed of his cause of death. Fiona persists in her refusal to let them in to her life, even as they all grieve Nico’s passing. Fiona frantically scours Paris in search of her daughter Claire. Like Fiona, Claire has become a mother herself and does not want contact with her own mother. Fiona eventually realizes the irony:
Your mother was supposed to be there when you had a baby, was supposed to yell at doctors for you and make sure you were resting. If Fiona had allowed her own mother in the hospital, would things have gone differently? Would her mother have insisted on putting baby Claire on her chest, make sure they bonded as they slept? The thought hit her hard, right in the abdomen, and so did the realization that what Claire had done to her was exactly shat she’d done to her own mother.