A Book Review

“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

Makkai’s novel is a well-told story of historic proportions that asks how trauma shapes us

Nicholas E. Barron
Feb 18 · 3 min read
Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai while a fatal virus spreads across the globe is a unique experience. The novel flips between the 1980s AIDS crisis and the fallout experienced of people living in 2015. While reading it, coronavirus creeped out of China and onto the world stage.

The Great Believers centers on Fiona. Her older brother, Nico, is a gay man in Chicago who contracts HIV. It’s the mid-1980s, and there’s much that people don’t yet know about the disease, except that it’s fatal.

Nico’s friends become Fiona’s friends. And, as the virus spreads, Fiona becomes a caretaker to the ill. She sits in hospital rooms with the dying, making legal decisions as their power of attorney.

This is because these men have no one. At that time, many viewed gay people as deviants, with families disowning their gay sons. Fiona is there to help her friends cope, to be with them as they die. But who is there for Fiona?

An Importance of Historical Proportions

Since then, the U.S. and 29 other countries and territories around the world legalized same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples in many places can publicly hold hands or kiss without fear of attack. It’s easy to feel as if gay rights activists can claim victory. The war is over; everyone can go home.

But history shows us that what’s won can be lost. As a character in The Great Believers says, “‘It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.’” And the past can still affect us in the present.

“It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.”

The Great Believers illuminates the battle for acceptance, education, and treatment of HIV-positive people in the U.S. in the 1980s. And it highlights the impact of trauma on our lives. It’s a masterfully told tale by Rebecca Makkai.

We feel for the people living and dying through the AIDS crisis. Which of the characters makes it? What happens that turns the 1980s version of Fiona into the Fiona we see in 2015? How do our experiences shape us? And what effect do our actions have on those we love?

These are questions that reading The Great Believers prompts. Reading this novel is an engaging, thought-provoking, and entertaining experience. But this is not a lighthearted book. Death and consequential decisions parlay throughout it.

It’s easy to see why The Great Believers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The novel is a well-told story wrapped in a cocoon of purpose and understanding. Who we are matters. And what we do matters most.


To purchase this book, click here.



Nicholas E. Barron is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. He publishes a newsletter for book lovers and for writers.

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