Rebecca Makkai's engrossing new novel, "The Great Believers," is set mostly in Chicago and Paris, and a little bit in rural Wisconsin, but as I read it I kept thinking of London — of an oil painting that's part of the Tate collection. "Bathing," by Duncan Grant, a member of the Bloomsbury group, is a stylized celebration of the muscular male form. Diving into rippling waves, swimming across the water, the men on its canvas inhabit a world of their own. It's thrilling and beautiful to behold.
There's the length of a whole healthy lifespan between the date of that painting, 1911, and the year "The Great Believers" opens, 1985. But Grant's image is how I picture the group of friends and lovers at the center of Makkai's novel, before their utopia crumbled beneath their feet. A stretch of Chicago lakefront is one of this bunch's favorite leisure grounds — a gay hangout that becomes a site of bittersweet memories once the AIDS virus arrives, picking off victims one by one.
As the novel begins, a young artist named Nico has been dead three weeks. His partner, Terrence, isn't welcome at the church funeral Nico's parents are holding, so Terrence, their friends, and Nico's spitfire of a little sister, Fiona, gather for an alternate memorial at their wealthy friend Richard's house. For one of the gang, 31-year-old Yale, this is the first in the epidemic's ghastly spate of deaths to claim someone so close: not merely an acquaintance but a beloved friend.
The memorial is defiantly festive, because that's what Nico demanded. But in its unofficial status, it's emblematic all the same of a time when mainstream culture shrouded AIDS and homosexuality in secrecy and shame — when same-sex partners were routinely left off lists of survivors in obituaries, and deaths from the virus were publicly attributed to some other cause.
If "The Great Believers" were set solely in that moment, when outraged activists organized frantically as the clock ticked down and people died gruesomely around them, it might be unbearably heavy reading.
But Makkai ("The Hundred-Year House") is savvier than that, emotionally and literarily. She plaits two strands of her story: one about Yale and the others in Chicago in the '80s and early '90s; another that takes a plane to Paris with Fiona in 2015, when she is 51 and desperate to track down her grown daughter, Claire.
Mothering and mourning are twin themes in this novel, and Fiona personifies them. After Nico is booted from their suburban home at 15 for being gay, she plays Wendy to him and the other lost boys who are his friends in Chicago. She and Nico both think of her as his substitute mother, though he is several years her senior. When he dies, and so many others follow, she never really recovers. She carries that trauma with her, in a kind of perpetual vigil.
It's the sort of pain that can make a person fearful of fully opening her heart. This may be what wrecked her marriage to a man who loved her, and also what stymied her relationship with Claire, who years ago ran as far from her parents as she could, throwing herself in harm's way. Now Claire seems to be in Paris, the mother of her own little girl. At least that's the clue that Fiona is following, based on a snippet of video she saw online.
Fiona isn't the only one of Nico and Yale's old gang who survived into the 21st century, and Makkai deftly employs some vagueness on this score. We know from early on, though, that Richard is still alive — long famous now for the photographs he took in obscurity back then, training his lens on his friends: first exuberant, then withering. In Paris, where he's about to have a big new show at the Centre Pompidou, he lives glamorously on Île Saint-Louis. He will be Fiona's host.
Yale is the book's other principal — a self-doubting romantic long paired with the charismatic, creepily controlling Charlie, whom you may correctly suspect of gaslighting him. Yale, though, is a sweetheart, easy to root for as he closes in on a professional coup for the small university gallery where he works: the acquisition of a valuable collection that belongs to an elderly woman named Nora. Her motive in donating it has to do with stubborn devotion to a dead artist from another lost generation, the men who fought in World War I.
The persistence, unrequitedness, and elusiveness of love suffuse these pages. So does sex — tantalizing, overpowering, elemental, potentially fatal. We feel its danger keenly, particularly for Yale, whose HIV-negative status may have worsened. Watching him tiptoe through this minefield, when hope of survival is so minuscule, we can't help begging: Please, not him.
THE GREAT BELIEVERS
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 421 pp., $36
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