Well, my reading is going much better than my posting — I read seven book in May, and I’ve read 4 so far in June, but I haven’t managed to finish up posting on my May reading yet… The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai was definitely one of my favorite reads of the year so far, high recommend. It’s one of those rare books that you can’t put down, but it’s not just a page turner, it’s really giving you something more than that.

The novel tells two parallel stories — Yale, a homosexual man living in Chicago in the mid 80’s and early 90’s during the AIDS crisis and then Fiona (who lost her brother to AIDS and was friends with Yale and his whole circle during the crisis), who 30 years later is in Paris trying to track down her daughter. Fiona actually appears in both story lines, so you get an interesting picture of her as a young woman and then a mother/grandmother. At first I was a bit annoyed, each chapter flips back and forth, and I was really invested in Yale’s story in a way that I was not invested in Fiona’s later story — but as the novel went on, I was engrossed in both and ultimately ended up loving how having the later narrative wrapped up a lot of things from the earlier narrative with Yale.

Yale works in an art gallery affiliated with a university, and a big part of the story is his work getting a donation of art, which doesn’t sound particularly thrilling, but the way the characters are drawn here, you care about what they care about. Also, this provides Yale the opportunity to meet Nora, the possible donor, who was herself a painter around WWI and who knew all these artists who were killed during WWI — setting up an interesting juxtaposition with the AIDS crisis:

“Because you’ll understand: It was a ghost town. Some of those boys were dear friends. I’d studied next to them for two years. I’d run around with them, doing all the ridiculous things you do when you’re young.

It– you know what, it prepared me for being old. All my friends are dying, or they’re dead already, but I’ve been through it before.”

Yale hadn’t particularly thought about Nora having current friends. Somehow he’s always thought of friends as the people you met early and stayed bonded to forever. Maybe this was why his loneliness was hitting him so hard. He couldn’t imagine going out and selecting a brand-new cohort. How unimaginable that Nora had lived another seven decades, that she’s known the world this long without her first adult friends, her compatriots.

Despite how depressing this book could be (and I wept through a good portion of it), you’re so invested that it’s not like it just gets you down, and it is also just so beautiful. Towards the end Fiona and her daughter are together, but still having a difficult time relating to each other, and one of the men who’s survived (with HIV, but never developed full-blown AIDS and has now survived long enough to have better drugs to control his illness, but has seen so so many of his friends die young) explains to them:

“Everyone knows how short life is. Fiona and I know it especially. But no one ever talks about how long it is. And it’s–does that make sense? Every life is too short, even the long ones, but some people’s lives are too long as well. I mean– maybe that won’t make sense until you’re older.

If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle. I just want to say that.”

It’s hard to even talk about this, because it feels so right to me, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to add. If only right? If only we could just be born and die together, we’d never mourn anyone, we’d never have to be Nora and live on for seven decades missing our first friends. So we need to recognize when we’re with those we love, that it is a miracle.

Other recent reads that will be coming to this blog soon: Bowlaway, The Ash Family, Born a Crime, and Kaddish.com

Currently reading: All baby/kid related at the moment, so probably won’t review – The Big Book of Birth and Cribsheet: A Data Driven Guide to Better More Relaxed Parenting