The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
I am interested to hear what you thought about this book. In the beginning I found it slow, dragging and predictable, but around page 266, as the Yale and Fiona plots started to come together, I found that the characters' emotions and my investment grew and only accelerated towards the end. There is much we could discuss, and you can find suggested discussion questions below.
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What was the best part? (Stylistically, I really liked the July 15, 1986 chapter when Yale learns he tested positive.)
3. How did you reconcile the Fiona of 1985 with the Fiona of 2015?
4. What did you make of the narrative structure -- the merging of two times and places?
5. "Ageism is the only self-correcting prejudice, isn't it?" says Richard, p.113. What do you make of his assertion? Does it make you realize who you expected to survive? ("How utterly strange that Julian could have a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She'd been tending the graveyard alone, oblivious to the fact that the world had moved on, that one of the graves had been empty this whole time." 360)
6. When did you know Charlie cheated? Did he cheat?
7. What do you make of the book cover art?
8. Fiona comments that Jake couldn't understand the trauma of the 80s AIDS epidemic. What is the author's message to young people today? What should we remember and understand about inter-generational trauma by retelling the stories from that time? ("Julian came up there every single day. He wasn't the smartest guy, but he was loyal and he felt things more than other people. You, you numb out with alcohol, right? Some people actually feel things." (165) "I've been processing for thirty years...since you were watching Saturday morning cartoons in your pajamas." 171)
9. After Nico's father kicks him out of the house, Fiona blames her mother for not standing up to him. What do you make of her mother's response: "You'll never know anyone's marriage but your own. And even then, you'll only know half of it." (201)
10. If the defining relationship of the book is Yale and Fiona's, then how does it work that there is no conflict between them? What keeps this story and set of stories moving?
11. What did you make of the character development in this book? Who did you know well? Who did you want to know better?
12. Was it the author's intent to remind readers that AIDS is still a serious killer? ("A million people in the world had died of AIDS in the past year, and she hadn't cried about it once. A million people! She spent a long time asking herself if she was racist, or if it was about the width of the Atlantic Ocean...And maybe, too, she only had room in her heart, in this lifetime, for one big cause, the arc of one disaster." 345)
13. How is judgment portrayed in this book? Did you want to judge? Is there any room for judgment? ("The thing is," Teddy said, "the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgement on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't it's a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn't care, it's a judgment on how much you hate yourself. Isn't that why the world loves Ryan White [hemophiliac, AIDS poster child] so much? How could God have it out for some poor kid with a blood disorder? But then people are still being terrible. They're judging him for being sick, not even for the way he got it." 326)
14. Is the author trying to make a distinction between or comment on sex and love and friendship? What roles do each play? And what do you make of Yale finding friendship at the end? ("And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone's life. Making room for someone in yours." 383)
15. Are there any honorable parents? Are there any dishonorable parents?
16. What do you make of Fiona and Claire's relationship? Why do you think the author chose to use the Hosanna cult as a mechanism to show the disconnection between Fiona and Claire? Why the added layer of another belief system?
17. What do you make of the quotes at the beginning of the text?
"We were the great believers. I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved -- and who now walk the long stormy summer." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "My Generation"
"the world is a wonder, but the portions are small" -- Rebecca Hazelton, "Slash Fiction"
18. Did you want Asher to return to Chicago when Yale was dying?
19. Is that really what Yale believes of love? As he looks at Ranko's self-portrait: "But here it hung, and it was an artifact of love. Well--of a homeless, doomed, selfish, ridiculous love, but what other kind had ever existed?" (395) What about Fiona's love for Yale?
20. How do we remember a life? By it's ending? By going back to the beginning? "As he got sicker, it was more and more often how he thought of people--of Charlie, certainly, and of everyone else here or gone: not as the sum of all the disappointments, but as every beginning they'd ever represented, every promise." (396)
21. What did you appreciate of the ties between Yale and Nora? The link of death by congestive heart failure.... Nora's assertion that life is time travel and Yale's desire to visualize parallel lives... Nora's love for Ranko compared to Yale's love to ...? Neither Nora nor Yale living long enough to see themselves in a famous art show...
22. Both art shows revisit the past. How do they play into Nora's wish for reincarnation?
23. How much better can you describe heartache than this: "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." (401)
24. What is it about the hype of your last meal? "One of the volunteers had told him a long time ago that whenever someone had a good breakfast, that was it--the patient only had a few hours left." (402) My dog also ate breakfast the day she died...and I remember a patient of mine whose diet I liberalized at the end -- she immediately ordered grilled cheese and fries and died a few hours later.
25. What do you make of the parallel description of the opening of Nora's show at the Brigg and Richard's at the Pompidou?
26. What do you make of the symbolism of water and death by drowning in this book?
Every mention of Lake Michigan.
Yale swimming at Hull House where Asher was.
All of the bodily fluids.
"She stopped and looked at Yale before she left the room, a look you'd throw a drowning man as you took the last life preserver." (300)
"The room was dark, and Roman smelled like honey and cigarettes, and Yale walked through the door like he was diving into a sunken ship." (314)
"He drowned. I said that to the doctors and they said, no, that wasn't quite it, but I know what I saw. He drowned." (388)
"Your pupils were just so dilated. It was like watching someone trapped in a tank of water." (403)
"Yale had a dream that he was swimming at the bottom of the Hull House pool, looking up but unable to surface--and when he awoke, it was to struggle for breath in a room devoid of air." (404)
Thanks for coming out in the drizzle last night to discuss The Great Believers and celebrate the Tipsy Mamas' Book Club turning three! Thank you for bringing such delicious treats and beverages! If you didn't get a chance to swipe a goody bag on your way out, I have extras!
While we had some critiques about plot points along the way, we appreciated Rebecca Makkai's effort to tell a compelling story of inter-generational trauma. Thank you so much for sharing your personal histories with the AIDS epidemic -- how it influenced your education...and your families...
For next month, please join us for a discussion of The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates. We hope this will be an uplifting report at a time of year (and life) when we could all use a boost. However, it seems that we might have some readers in our midst who have worked with philanthropy and so might bring a more complex perspective to the table. We don't want to cause undue angst through our book choices, but if you can stomach facing something hard, please, please bring your voices!
Hope to see you there!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.