In mid-1980s Chicago, Yale Tishman finds his longtime relationship crumbling in the face of the AIDS crisis, turning a moment of professional triumph into an ongoing personal tragedy. Thirty years later, Yale’s friend Fiona searches for her daughter in Paris. Rebecca Makkai unspools these two stories in alternating chapters of her new novel, “The Great Believers.”
Makkai, whose last book, “Music for Wartime,” was a simply dazzling collection of short stories, has penned a deeply compassionate novel of love and loss. “The Great Believers” captures the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic as the central characters quarrel about the efficacy of early tests, rally to care for the dying, and chart their own perilous paths in their personal lives.
The portions of the novel set in Paris are equally affecting as Fiona seeks to reconnect with a daughter lost years earlier to a cult. Makkai deftly paces her two connected tales, revealing and withholding details with purpose and impeccable timing. The echoes of the ’80s narrative can be heard throughout the 2015 chapters, and Makkai uses her alternating structure to build suspense in both time periods.
“The Great Believers” is a great contribution to the literature of the AIDS epidemic, in no small part because it is apparently the first novel to explore the onset of the crisis in Chicago. But even without that distinction, the novel would be an important achievement for its compassion toward its characters and its clear-eyed consideration of the ways in which those who are lost can still find their way — even decades later — into the lives of those who are left behind.