The Great Believers is a story of the AIDS epidemic, its victims and its survivors. The story is told in alternating years, beginning with 1985 in Chicago and moving to 2015 in Paris.
The story starts with Nico’s funeral and funeral reception. Nico had died 3 weeks before the story begins. This part of the story focuses on Yale (and Charlie) and Nico’s sister, Fiona. Yale works in development at Northwestern University at the Briggs Gallery. Charlie is a gay rights activist and runs “Outloud Chicago”. Charlie and Yale have been in a long term monogamous relationship.
Nico’s parents threw him out of the house at the age of 15 when they found out he was gay. Fiona was 11 at the time and began bringing him food and money. Nico’s partner, Terrence, is just waiting for the disease to hit him.
The funeral reception takes place at photographer Richard Campo’s home. Richard is about 15 years older than the rest of the group. When someone at the party brings out slides of Nico, Yale is so upset he goes upstairs to get away from the pictures. When he comes back down everyone is gone. It is this event that causes a permanent and insoluble rift between Yale and Charlie.
Nico had been a graphic designer, had a comic strip and was designing theater sets. Artistic talent ran in the family. Nico and Fiona’s Aunt, Nora, had been an art student in Paris in 1912. Nora sends Yale a letter indicating that she has various drawings and paintings from famous artists from her time in Paris that she would like to donate to the Briggs Gallery. Unfortunately, her son is not keen on the idea and contacts a friend who is on the university board of trustees and is a significant donor. Yale gets a visit from the head of development, Cecile Pearce, who explains the problem. Over the course of the story Cecile and Yale become good friends.
Fast forward to 2015. Fiona, 51 years old, is on a flight to Paris, where she has hired a private investigator to help find her estranged daughter, Claire. On the plane she meets a 35 year old journalist, Jake, to whom she mentions that she is friendly with 80 year old Richard Campo. At this point, Richard is a famous and revered photographer. Jake continues to pop up in this part of the story. We learn that Claire had been involved with Cecily’s son, Kurt Pearce, that they had joined a cult and that they have a child together. The estrangement between Fiona and Claire, in a sense, is another result of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
While in Paris, Fiona stays with Richard and his much younger partner, Serge. Jake shows up and asks Richard how his age has affected his work. In response, Richard comments that “Ageism is the only self-correcting prejudice.” While in Paris, much of the past comes back to Fiona, in a variety of ways which I will leave to you to discover.
The trip to Paris is also marred by tragedy. While Fiona is in Paris, a bomb explodes at a heavy metal concert at a soccer stadium in Saint-Denis. Fiona, of course, fears for the safety of her daughter. But Serge, visibly upsets, fears on a larger scale, emphasizing the fragility of progress and the dangers of extremist reaction. ‘’What I care is, now they elect right wing across Europe. And then, yes: You, me, we’re screwed. Everyone acts from fear, the next year, two years. What happens, you think, to, people like us?”
The story is involved and mostly sad. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment. The impact of prejudice, intolerance and fear, as well as the inequities of our health care system are palpable. There is some positive sense of progress and the impact of activism and protest, despite the costs. The story is well written and the characters are well developed and this review does not begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of the story. Nora summed it up the best when she explained to Yale: “…when you boil a story down, you end up with something macabre. All stories end the same way, don’t they?” You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.