Great Believers
by Makkai, Rebecca






A 1980s Chicago art gallery director loses his loved ones to the AIDS epidemic until his only companion is his daughter, who, decades later, grapples with the disease's wrenching impact on their family. By the author of The Hundred-Year House.





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.





*Starred Review* In Makkai's (Music for Wartime, 2015) ambitious third novel, it's 1985, and Yale has just lost his friend Nico to AIDS: not the first friend he's lost, not nearly the last he'll lose to the terrifying, still-mysterious disease. Soon after, Nico's younger sister and Yale's friend, Fiona, connects Yale to her nonagenarian great-aunt, who studied art in Paris in the 1910s and now wants to donate her personal collection of never-before-seen work by now-famous artists to the Northwestern University art gallery, where Yale works in development. This potentially career-making discovery arrives along with a crushing reveal in Yale's personal life. Another thread throughout the novel begins in 2015 as Fiona flies to Paris, where she has reason to believe her long-estranged adult daughter now lives. With its broad time span and bedrock of ferocious, loving friendships, this might remind readers of Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (2015), though it is, overall, far brighter than that novel. As her intimately portrayed characters wrestle with painful pasts and fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come, Makkai carefully reconstructs 1980s Chicago, WWI-era and present-day Paris, and scenes of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. A tribute to the enduring forces of love and art, over everything. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.





Another ambitious change of pace for the versatile and accomplished Makkai (The Hundred-Year House, 2014, etc.), whose characters wrangle with the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic at its height and in its aftermath. In the first of two intertwined storylines, Yale and his live-in lover, Charlie, attend an unofficial wake for a dead friend, Nico, held simultaneously with his funeral service because his Cuban-American family has made it clear they don't want any gay people there. It's 1985, and Makkai stingingly re-creates the atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and sanctimonious finger-pointing surrounding the mortally afflicted gay community, even in a big city like Chicago. Nico's younger sister, Fiona, has rejected their family and attached herself to his friends, with emotional consequences that become apparent in the second storyline, set 30 years later in Paris. As is often the case with paired stories, one of them initially seems more compelling, in this case Makkai's vivid chronicle of Yale's close-knit circle, of his fraught relationship with the obsessively jealous Charlie, and his pursuit of a potentially career-making donation for the university art gallery where he works in development. Fiona's opaque feelings of guilt and regret as she searches for her estranged daughter, Claire, aren't as engaging at first, but the 2015 narrative slowly unfolds to connect with the ordeals of Yale and his friends until we see that Fiona too is a traumatized survivor of the epidemic, bereft of her brother and so many other people she loved, to her lasting damage. As Makkai acknowledges in an author's note, when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed "the line between allyship and appropriation." On the contrary, her rich portraits of an array of big personalities and her affecting depiction of random, horrific death faced with varying degrees of gallantry make this tender, keening novel an impressive act of im a ginative empathy. As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving: an unbeatable fictional combination. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





1985

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—”     

“Straighter.”     

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.”






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