The Great Believers

The Great Believers

by Rebecca Makkai

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“A page turner...An absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it’s like to live during times of crisis. "—The New York Times Book Review

A dazzling new novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy and loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, by the acclaimed author Rebecca Makkai

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. 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. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735223547
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/19/2018
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 6,967
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Rebecca Makkai is the author of The Borrower, The Hundred-Year House, which won the Novel of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, and Music for Wartime. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Harper's, and Tin House, among others. She lives outside Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt


Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?”      Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”     

The closer they got to Richard’s house, the more friends they spotted heading the same way. Some were dressed nicely, as if this were the funeral itself; others wore jeans, leather jackets.      It must only be relatives up at the church, the parents’ friends, the priest. If there were sandwiches laid out in some reception room, most were going to waste.     

Yale found the bulletin from last night’s vigil in his pocket and folded it into something resembling the cootie catchers his childhood friends used to make on buses—the ones that told your fortune (“Famous!” or “Murdered!”) when you opened a flap. This one had no flaps, but each quadrant bore words, some upside down, all truncated by the folds: “Father George H. Whitb”; “beloved son, brother, rest in”; “All things bright and”; “lieu of flowers, donatio.” All of which, Yale supposed, did tell Nico’s fortune. Nico had been bright and beautiful. Flowers would do no good.     
The houses on this street were tall, ornate. Pumpkins still out on every stoop but few carved faces—artful arrangements, rather, of gourds and Indian corn. Wrought iron fences, swinging gates. When they turned onto the walkway to Richard’s (a noble brownstone sharing walls with noble neighbors), Charlie whispered: “His wife decorated the place. When he was married. In ’72.” Yale laughed at the worst possible moment, just as they passed a gravely smiling Richard holding open his own door. It was the idea of Richard living a hetero life in Lincoln Park with some decoratively inclined woman. Yale’s image of it was slapstick: Richard stuffing a man into the closet when his wife dashed back for her Chanel clutch.     

Yale pulled himself together and turned back to Richard. He said, “You have a beautiful place.” A wave of people came up behind them, pushing Yale and Charlie into the living room.     

Inside, the decor didn’t scream 1972 so much as 1872: chintz sofas, velvety chairs with carved arms, oriental rugs. Yale felt Charlie squeeze his hand as they dove into the crowd.     

Nico had made it clear there was to be a party. “If I get to hang out as a ghost, you think I wanna see sobbing? I’ll haunt you. You sit there crying, I’ll throw a lamp across the room, okay? I’ll shove a poker up your ass, and not in a good way.” If he’d died just two days ago, they wouldn’t have had it in them to follow through. But Nico died three weeks back, and the family delayed the vigil and funeral until his grandfather, the one no one had seen in twenty years, could fly in from Havana. Nico’s mother was the product of a brief, pre-Castro marriage between a diplomat’s daughter and a Cuban musician—and now this ancient Cuban man was crucial to the funeral planning, while Nico’s lover of three years wasn’t even welcome at the church tonight. Yale couldn’t think about it or he’d fume, which wasn’t what Nico wanted.   

  In any case, they’d spent three weeks mourning and now Richard’s house brimmed with forced festivity. There were Julian and Teddy, for instance, waving down from the second-story railing that encircled the room. Another floor rose above that, and an elaborate round skylight presided over the whole space. It was more of a cathedral than the church had been. Someone shrieked with laughter far too close to Yale’s ear.     

Charlie said, “I believe we’re meant to have a good time.” Charlie’s British accent, Yale was convinced, emerged more in sarcasm.     

Yale said, “I’m waiting on the go-go dancers.”     

Richard had a piano, and someone was playing “Fly Me to the Moon.”      What the hell were they all doing?     

A skinny man Yale had never seen before bear-hugged Charlie. An out-of-towner, he guessed, someone who’d lived here but moved away before Yale came on the scene. Charlie said, “How in hell did you get younger?” Yale waited to be introduced, but the man was telling an urgent story now about someone else Yale didn’t know. Charlie was the hub of a lot of wheels.   

 A voice in Yale’s ear: “We’re drinking Cuba libres.” It was Fiona, Nico’s little sister, and Yale turned to hug her, to smell her lemony hair. “Isn’t it ridiculous?” Nico had been proud of the Cuban thing, but if he knew the chaos his grandfather’s arrival would cause, he’d have vetoed the beverage choice.   

Fiona had told them all, last night, that she wasn’t going to the funeral—that she’d be here instead—but still it was jarring to see her, to know she’d followed through. But then she’d written off her family as thoroughly as they’d written Nico off in the years before his illness. (Until, in his last days, they’d claimed him, insisting he die in the suburbs in an ill-equipped hospital with nice wallpaper.) Her mascara was smudged. She had discarded her shoes, but wobbled as if she still wore heels.     

Fiona handed her own drink to Yale—half full, an arc of pink on the rim. She touched a finger to the cleft of his upper lip. “I still can’t believe you shaved it off. I mean, it looks good. You look sort of—”     


She laughed, and then she said, “Oh. Oh! They’re not making you, are they? At Northwestern?” Fiona had one of the best faces for concern Yale had ever seen—her eyebrows hurried together, her lips vanished straight into her mouth—but he wondered how she had any emotion left to spare.     

He said, “No. It’s—I mean, I’m the development guy. I’m talking to a lot of older alumni.”     

“To get money?”   

“Money and art. It’s a strange dance.” Yale had taken the job at Northwestern’s new Brigg Gallery in August, the same week Nico got sick, and he still wasn’t sure where his responsibilities started and ended. “I mean, they know about Charlie. My colleagues do. It’s fine. It’s a gallery, not a bank.” He tasted the Cuba libre. Inappropriate for the third of November, but then the afternoon was unseasonably warm, and this was exactly what he needed. The soda might even wake him up.     

“You had a real Tom Selleck thing going. I hate when blond men grow a mustache; it’s peach fuzz. Dark-haired guys, though, that’s my favorite. You should’ve kept it! But it’s okay, because now you look like Luke Duke. In a good way. No, like Patrick Duffy!” Yale couldn’t laugh, and Fiona tilted her head to look at him seriously.   

He felt like sobbing into her hair, but he didn’t. He’d been cultivating numbness all day, hanging onto it like a rope. If this were three weeks ago, they could have simply cried together. But everything had scabbed over, and now there was this idea of party on top of everything else, this imperative to be, somehow, okay. Merry.   

And what had Nico been to Yale? Just a good friend. Not family, not a lover. Nico was, in fact, the first real friend Yale had made when he moved here, the first he’d sat down with just to talk, and not at a bar, not shouting over music. Yale had adored Nico’s drawings, would take him out for pancakes and help him study for his GED and tell him he was talented. Charlie wasn’t interested in art and neither was Nico’s lover, Terrence, and so Yale would take Nico to gallery shows and art talks, introduce him to artists. Still: If Nico’s little sister was holding it together this well, wasn’t Yale obliged to be in better shape?   
 Fiona said, “It’s hard for everyone.”

Reading Group Guide

Spanning three decades and two continents, The Great Believers is the story of a group of friends and their stirring emotional journey through the 1980s AIDS crisis in Chicago and its effects on the contemporary lives of survivors.

In 1985, Yale Tishman is the development director at the art gallery at Northwestern University, working to bring in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift from an elderly woman who was once an artist’s model in Paris. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. The novel opens on the funeral day of his late friend Nico. As the virus continues to take its toll on the gay community in Chicago, Yale grows closer to Nico's little sister Fiona, who comes to care for many of Nico's friends.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter Claire who disappeared into a cult. While staying with her old friend Richard, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago epidemic, she finds herself surrounded by memories and reminders of that time. Finally, she begins to understand just how profoundly the AIDS crisis affected her life, grappling with what she sacrificed in caring for and loving these men, sacrifices that affected her marriage and her relationship with her daughter. Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness and feel hope in the face of disaster. The Great Believers is a powerful meditation, not on death, but rather on the power and gift of love and friendship.

1. Yale’s group of friends is very close. In a sense, they are his “chosen family.” How is this explored in the book? How does each character relate to their family, biological and chosen? Do you have a “chosen family,” and if so, what brings you all together?

2. How has the culture changed regarding LGBTQ+ voices and stories since the 1980s?

3. Chicago is such a powerful presence in this novel that it is almost a character in itself. Have you ever been to or lived in a place that exerted a strong influence on you?

4. Nora, the elderly woman donating the 1920s pieces, seems completely removed from the rest of Yale’s life, yet her story contains elements that can be compared and contrasted with Yale’s. What similarities between his and her life are there? How has her past affected the present?

5. Fiona has suffered many losses in her life. How do you think that affected her as a mother? What are the ways in which trauma and loss are passed down through generations?

6. Do you empathize more with Fiona or Claire?

7. Do you see any parallels between the state of healthcare during the 1980s and now?

8. On page 353, Asher asks Yale, “Does it really ever go anywhere? . . . Love. Does it vanish?” Yale replies, “I mean, we never want it to. But it does, doesn’t it?” What would you say to them?

9. Is the creation of artwork always a collaborative effort? How do you feel about the relationship between artist and muse?

10. What has been your knowledge of—or experience with, if any—AIDS or those affected by the disease? Has reading this novel changed any ideas you have previously had about the subject?

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The Great Believers 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This well -written and substantial novel recalls a time---the AIDS epidemic --- and the lives of those who survived and those who did not.
HalKid2 9 months ago
Here is a novel that fully immerses you into the terrifying AIDS epidemic of the mid 1980s -- when every diagnosis spelled death and the surrounding world was full of misinformation about how the disease spread. Part of the book follows a group of people living in the midst of this world and another part picks some of them up again a generation later. In 1985, the gay community of Chicago is still mostly hiding out in gay bars and bath houses and just beginning to observe the randomness with which AIDS strikes. Nico has just died and his sister Fiona and all his friends (Yale the art gallery fundraiser, Charlie the gay magazine editor, Asher the activist attorney, Richard the photographer, and others) are all grieving the loss of this one wonderful young man. During the next few years, as more and more people get diagnosed, we all watch as this community, its surrounding society, and its healthcare providers and insurance companies are forced to address the growing epidemic, in part, in response to growing activism from the gay community. In 2015, a mid-fifties Fiona has hired a private detective to locate her estranged daughter Claire, who may now be living in Paris. A retrospective exhibit of Richard's photos is about to open, also in Paris. And if you remember your history, 2015 is also the year of the terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall and other locations in Paris. So, needless to say, there's a lot of drama in this novel. And since the narrative moves back and forth in time, there are a lot of characters and storylines to keep track of. But along the way, you'll learn a bit about acquisitions in the gallery world, a great deal about different kinds of love, and some about the long-lasting legacy left by a disease that took so many at such a young age.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought it was great. It's hard to imagine a novel dealing with the AIDS crisis primarily described as a "page turner" but it was.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So well done. Compelling, sweet, and sad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
carlosmock More than 1 year ago
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai Not since Felice Picano's "Like People in History", or my own "Borrowing Time: A Latino Sexual Oddysey" have I been impressed by a book that documents the AIDS epidemic so vividly. The book opens at the Memorial Service for Nico Marcus, a young man who had died from AIDS two weeks prior in 1985. He was abandoned by his family since he came out and his sister Fiona Marcus Blanchard took care of her brother until the end. The story immediately jumps to 2015 on its second chapter, where Fiona is in Paris searching for her daughter, Claire Yael Blanchard who had recently escaped a cult in Colorado. The chapters keep interacting between 1985 and 2015. Ms. Makkai chooses Yale Tishman, a 31 y/o gay man and Development director of Northwestern's Briggs Gallery to narrate from the third person point of view the story in 1985 to 1991, And Fiona to narrate the story in 2015, also from the third person point of view. Yale, through Fiona's great aunt, Nora Marcus Lerner, stumbles on an unexpected windfall: Nora wants to bequeath her collection of 1920s artwork to the gallery. As it turns out, Nora was in Paris in the 1920s and modeled for a group of artists and was given paintings that are worth millions, if authenticated and restored. Unfortunately, he has to deal with Nora's family and a rich Northwestern donor who don't want to give away the fortune. Also, 1985 Chicago is in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in full force and most of Yale's friends are either infected, dying, or dead. Yale has been in a stable relationship with Charlie Keene for the last five years, but it soon becomes evident that Charlie has been infected -- he cheated on Yale -- and Yale has to deal with the consequences he might be infected too. At the time, it took several weeks to find out you were positive and the stress and fear are quite to evident as Yale deals with his possible health crisis. As his tests come negative, Yale lowers his guard and seduces his boss, Bill Lindsey's -- who is married to a woman--boy toy on the side, Roman. Believing that Roman is in the closet and perhaps a Mormon virgin, Yale has unprotected sex with Roman and becomes infected too. One of Yale's last acts is to go to the inauguration of the art exhibit where Nora's purpose is fulfilled: she was in love with an unknown artist, Ranco Novaks, and wanted him exhibited with the other masterpieces. For Nora, it was the culmination of a 70 y/o love affair. Yale has to deal not only with his mortality but also with the stigma and judgment from contracting AIDS: "The thing is, the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't, it's a judgment on your hubris." p. 326 The 2015 plot deals with Fiona and her daughter Claire. Nora introduced Claire to Kurt Pearce and soon thereafter they join a cult: Hossanah Collective. Fiona has a video of Claire in Paris and travels there to stay with her friend, the famous photographer Ricard Campus, who has an apartment at Ille St. Louis. She hires a private investigator who quickly finds Kurt. He has remarried and doesn't want to tell Fiona where Claire i
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Two story lines that overlap from the beginning. In 1985 in Chicago, Yale Tishman narrates the story and he is in the middle of the AIDS crisis as it takes many of his friends. In 2015 Fiona, one of the sisters of one of the first AIDS victims in the 1985 storyline is in Paris trying to reconnect with her daughter. Usually when there are two storylines I like one more than the other and that was the case with this book. I learned so much more and felt more invested in these characters and their story. I know vague details about the AIDS epidemic in general, but am not sure I ever read a book and I really enjoyed learning more about the ins and outs and how much of a stigma these men felt even before they were diagnosed. I also was intrigued to learn about the drama they had within the community and it wasn't all support and love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I enjoyed the book, I felt another good-edit was needed for at least the first half of the book.
Jenny_Brown More than 1 year ago
This novel blew me away. Blew. Me. Away. The two storylines--of Yale in 1980s Chicago, surrounded by the AIDS epidemic and of Fiona in 2015 searching for her missing daughter in Paris--were both so captivating that I'd be disappointed at the end of a chapter because I'd want more of his/her story, only to be thrust into the next one and not wanting that one to end either. Perhaps some of my adoration of this novel is because the 1980s were my formative years, and I spent much of the early '90s volunteering with Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City. The novel so well touched on the issues (without ever making them seem like Issues with a capital I), weaving them into the story, that it evoked emotions in me that haven't surfaced in years. This novel moved me. I needed to see how it ended but I so didn't want it to end, and the final image is one that haunts. This novel is superb.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Striking, haunting, I'll think of this one for days. Multiple layers across decades leaving the question: if someone leaves your life prematurely, versus sticking with you towards a bitter end, how does your perception of them change? Thanks for the ARC, Netgalley
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank you to Net Galley for giving me an advance copy of this book. This is in the running to be the best book I read this year and has already gone onto my greatest books ever list. The Great Believers follows Yale, a gay man in 1983, and Fiona, a friend of his searching for her daughter in 2015. The way every character in this book is developed makes them so totally believable, I almost miss them as if they were my friends. This book tackles the AIDs crisis in the 1980s and I found myself sobbing on the subway as I tore through this book to get top the next chapter. The alternating perspectives is done beautifully. This book will be remembered as a masterpiece and I will be following the author's work to see what she has in store for the future!