Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers”

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction.

This old-fashioned realistic novel is solid and remarkably well-researched.  Shifting back and forth in time between 1985 and 2005, it focuses on the  AIDS epidemic in Chicago and its impact on two characters, Yale Tishman, a gay man who works as the development director for an art gallery at Northwestern, and Fiona, whose brother Nico dies of AIDS.  Yale was a friend of Niko and Fiona.

In the mid-1980s, Yale is watching his friends die, terrified of the virus to which he has been exposed, and also attempting to procure an art collection for the gallery. Fiona’s aunt, whose late husband was a Northwestern alumnus,  wants to donate the art to the gallery, but her family tries to prevent her.  In 2005, Fiona, who never recovered from the loss of her brother,  is searching for her daughter, Claire, who  disappeared first into a cult, and then left for Paris.

This book  is well-written, moving, and craftsmanlike. That said,  I stopped on page 234.    Perhaps it’s just November, but I didn’t want to see one more man die.  I did read two brilliant AIDS novels in the ’90s, Alan Gurganus’s Plays Well with Others and Christopher Coe’s Such Times.  (Coe died of AIDS.)  But even though I didn’t finish this, I wouldn’t be unhappy if it won.  It is a noble book.