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'The Great Believers' review: Rebecca Makkai's AIDS novel is cathartic expression of grief, remembrance

Mourners at an AIDS candlelight vigil in 1991.

Mourners at an AIDS candlelight vigil in 1991. Rebecca Makkai's new novel charts the impact of the disease on a close circle of friends. Credit: AP/John G. Mabanglo

THE GREAT BELIEVERS, by Rebecca Makkai. Viking, 421 pp., $27.

In the storytelling of AIDS, New York and San Francisco have always dwarfed Chicago. Nevertheless, about 12,000 people have died of the disease in that city since the epidemic began in the early 1980s. Chicago has its own history of grief, upheaval, anger, activism and compassion around the epidemic, which is the backdrop for Rebecca Makkai's deeply moving, if uneven, new novel, "The Great Believers."

Makkai, the author of "The Hundred-Year House" and other titles, begins her story in 1985 at the memorial service of Nico Marcus, among the first to die of AIDS in a tightly knit, upper-middle-class group of (mostly) gay friends that includes Fiona Marcus, Nico's adoring younger sister; Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery; and Richard Campo, a photographer.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the buttoned-up Yale. Makkai does an excellent job of capturing the jaded, ironic and affectionately jibing small talk of a group of cultured gay friends in the Reagan era; their scenes together feel much like a queer version of "St. Elmo's Fire."

Suddenly, the book jumps to 2015 and Fiona, now about 50, is showing up in Paris to stay with Richard, who has become a world-famous photographer, and to search for her daughter, Claire, who disappeared into a cult with her husband and baby. We are not entirely sure at this point who in the circle of friends has survived AIDS, or exactly what Fiona has done with her life since Nico’s death, but we do know that she is estranged from Claire and seems to have become a shut-down, bitter woman.

Thus begin chapters that toggle between 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris. For the most part, the Chicago chapters contain the book’s energy and heart. Makkai, married to a man, writes in her acknowledgments that she undertook the research and re-creation of Chicago's 1980s gay community with extreme consciousness of "the line between allyship and appropriation," then adds, in an almost preemptive apology, "I did my best."

She has, in fact, done a superb job of capturing a group of friends in a particular time and place with humor and compassion. Conversations among her gay male characters feel very real — not too flamboyant, not too serious, always morbidly witty. It's hard not to get drawn into this circle of promising young men as they face their brutally premature extinction.

Having said that, long parts of "The Great Believers" drag and sink into banality. Yale has a subplot about trying to acquire a cache of Lost Generation artworks from a sweet old lady who had a naughty, glamorous youth as a painter and artist's model in 1920s Paris. This plotline often feels pointless, though Makkai stresses how the losses of Europe's post-World War I youth echo the trauma among American gay men from AIDS. Similarly, it's hard to get invested in Fiona's search for her daughter because we don't know why we should care about their relationship.

But it's worth pushing through, because "The Great Believers" intensifies in its final third, when Yale finally comes into sharp focus as the stakes rise perilously for him and we become invested in his survival. In these chapters, Makkai bears down hard on the devastating, heart-rending impact of AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s on its sufferers and their caretakers — in this case, particularly, Fiona.

In the final chapters, the character of Fiona also deepens and grabs the reader. Makkai has written a middle-age woman who is often unlikable — she treats an ardent young lover callously, she is often peremptory and entitled, she has little concern for AIDS' impact on people outside her circle — but who ultimately elicits empathy as someone whose heart, in the form of her brother and his gay friends, was stolen from her at a tender age.

Often, Makkai writes, Chicagoans would ask the middle-age Fiona if she had seen the AIDS drama "Philadelphia." "And how could she answer? They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn't they understand that it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?"

The final pages of "The Great Believers" are tear-jerkers, full of a hard-earned joy and an almost cathartic expression of grief and remembrance. (To be more specific would be to spoil.) Makkai's novel is a strong reminder that when writers attempt to tell the story of other lives with skill, care and compassion, the results can serve as a kind of gift to the subjects, because they say so clearly, "I have seen you."

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