The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a sprawling novel about disaster, trauma, and hope. The book opens with friends and family mourning Nico’s death, a grounding event throughout the lives of the other characters. Alternating between Chicago during the 1980’s AIDS crisis and 2015 Paris, the story follows a close-knit group of gay men and Nico’s little sister, Fiona. In Chicago, Yale Tishman is securing a massive collection of 1920’s paintings for the art gallery he works at, while simultaneously navigating his relationships in the worsening AIDS epidemic. In Paris, Fiona is trying to find her estranged daughter, who joined a cult years before. Almost 30 years later, Fiona is still managing trauma from the chaos of the 80’s.
Interwoven in the narrative that follows Yale through the 80’s is the story of how Fiona’s modest Great Aunt Nora is in possession of over 2 million dollars’ worth of art from the 1920’s, and why she wishes to donate it to a university art gallery.
Coming in at over 400 pages with an ensemble cast spanning almost 100 years, it’s safe to say The Great Believers has a lot going on. Themes of mortality, illness, and art bind the book together. Still, the focus story here is Yale’s. Fiona’s narrative doesn’t emerge as the secondary story, but instead Nora’s does, as we hear about her fascinating life in 1920’s Europe as an artist and muse. While it’s interesting to see how the AIDS epidemic continues to affect Fiona, a straight cis white woman and therefore unlikely subject of such trauma, I could truthfully have done without her story.
Instead, I was interested by the parallels between what has been dubbed “The Lost Generation” (which, by the way, was a phrase coined by Gertrude Stein, not Ernest Hemingway) and young, gay men during the 1980’s. While certainly there are parallels to be drawn between the 80’s and today—namely between the lack of accessible healthcare—you’re left to draw them yourself, and the modern 2015 narrative doesn’t do much to contribute.
In short: I found Fiona unlikeable and her passages tedious. It’s clear how they were meant to add to the novel and its themes, but the author’s goals weren’t actually met. Choosing to explore Nora’s narrative more in place of Fiona’s would have been unexpected and fresh. While Makkai certainly began that work, it didn’t live up to its potential.
Nevertheless, the complexity of characters in the Chicago setting was dazzling, the plot development was seamless, and the connection between the reader and Yale was natural. Despite my critiques and wishes for this novel, it was a dizzying display of masterful storytelling. If you’re a fan of cross-generational narratives, this is a must-read. Makkai, despite being a cis straight woman, allies herself with the LGBTQ+ community to tell an important, devastating, and hopeful story. Her meticulous research certainly pays off.
Look, here’s how I feel: it’s a 421 page book. It would be very difficult for a novel of that length to hold your attention at every single moment, and that in a narrative as sweeping as Makkai’s you won’t be able to not pick favorites. It was certainly a beautiful book, and the fact that I wished to dive deeper into its world is evidence of Makkai’s ability to write a compelling story. This week’s recipe is inspired by the book’s opening scene: Nico’s wake. Makkai writes:
“Two very pretty, very young men circulated with trays of little quiches and stuffed mushrooms and deviled eggs. Yale wondered why the food wasn’t Cuban, too, to match the drinks, but Richard probably had just one plan for every party: Open the doors, open the bar, boys with quiche.”
Mini Ham & Cheese Quiches from Nico’s Wake
Richard’s plan—“open the doors, open the bar, boys with quiche”—is a good idea for any occasion.
Yield: approx. 2 dozen mini quiches | Prep time: 10 min.| Cook time: 30 min. | Total time: 45 min.
- 2 pie crusts (store bought or homemade)
- 5 large eggs
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 8 oz. chopped ham
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Prepare pie crust by cutting into circles, about 3 in. in diameter. If you don’t have a cookie cutter, you can use the rim of a glass to cut circles in the crust. Place the small circles in a greased muffin tin.
- Beat together eggs, milk, and salt & pepper well in a deep bowl.
- Stir in cheddar cheese and ham.
- Pour mixture about ½ the way full into each mini quiche crust. As the ham often sticks to the bottom of the bowl, I like to go back in and spoon a bit of ham on top of each quiche.
- Bake in oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until golden. Be sure to keep an eye on the quiches—I’ll often take them out about 20 minutes and poke them with a fork to allow air to escape if they’re too puffy.