In one of the major plot threads of Rebecca Makkai’s brilliant, heartbreaking novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS, Yale Tishman gets what seems to be a career-making opportunity: the museum where he works is offered a collection of previously unknown paintings from the early 20th century by Modigliani, Foujita, and others. It’s 1985, and the donor, now nearing the end of her life, had been a “muse” and model for the artists in question during the golden years before World War I. Are the paintings real? Can the museum lock down the deal despite the opposition of the donor’s family?
A second, alternating timeline is set in 2015. Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is now in her 50s and has gone to Paris in search of her adult daughter. Another golden age is ending there, as the neo-liberal dream of globalism is poised to crash on the rocks of ISIS and right-wing populism.
Neither of these things is what THE GREAT BELIEVERS is about. Makkai’s concern is with another golden age that ended too violently and too soon: the community of young men in Chicago in the 80s, including Yale, that was devastated by the AIDS epidemic.
From the first paragraph, you are drawn into Yale’s viewpoint and within a few pages you care deeply about him and everyone around him. Fiona’s chapters take a little longer to set their hook, but slowly it becomes clear how much those days in the 80s are still with her.
Makkai’s great gift is dialog that has enough mannerisms to sound completely natural, and at the same time the power to carry the work of the novel with exacting grace. Maybe it’s inseparable from the compassion that she brings to all the characters, that lets her see the depth of humanity in all of them without flinching from their sometimes-overwhelming physicality.
Soon your need to get to the end of the book is even stronger than your desire to linger there permanently. This is old-school storytelling at its best: third person past-tense strictly limited POV, with only two viewpoint characters; prose that doesn’t call attention to itself, yet stands up under repeated readings. Best of all, it’s not embarrassed to be full of ideas–political ideas, philosophical ideas, questions that can’t be answered, blame that needs to be assigned. It’s a big novel that reads quickly, and yet is bigger inside than out because it holds so much life inside it. Fiction doesn’t get any better than this.