Category Archives: Makkai Rebecca

The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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The Hundred-year House by Rebecca Makkai

“This place doesn’t want me,” he said. “It’s rejecting me. Like a transplanted organ.”

Rebecca Makkai’s engaging novel The Hundred-Year House spans a century, focusing in on 4 specific time periods: 1999, 1955, 1929, and 1900 through the story of the various residents of a splendid ancient manor house, set in gorgeous grounds, located outside of Chicago. This was once the Laurelfield Arts Colony, but in the present, 1999, when the novel begins, the Arts Colony is a thing of the past, and all its secrets are hidden under lock and key in the attic. Matriarch Gracie, married to second husband Bruce, guards the past and the keys. Her only daughter Zee, a Marxist scholar, teaches at the local university, and Zee and her husband Doug live in the former coach house on the grounds of the family mansion. Doug, a “freelance PhD” is unemployed and is still working (for the last nine years) on a book about obscure poet Edwin Parfitt, who once stayed at the colony.  While Zee’s frustration grows at Doug’s inability to finish his book, he is actually secretly employed writing formulaic books in a popular teen series called Friends for Life. He’s ashamed of this job which he found through his friend, Leland, a “luckless poet.”

They give you the entire plot,” he said, “and you just stick to the style. Really there is no style. It’s refreshing.” Leland claimed they took a week each, and Doug was enchanted with the idea of shooting out a fully formed book like some kind of owl pellet.

While Doug stays in the coach house writing series teen novels, his book on Edwin Parfitt is frozen. He has piles of xeroxed articles, but he becomes obsessed with the old art colony attic files and convinces himself that there’s previously unknown information about Parfitt to be uncovered somewhere in the attic. Strangely, Gracie proves to be very difficult when it comes to allowing access to the files, and she’s an elusive person whose air of distracted eccentricity may be genuine or may be a way of effectively avoiding confrontation. Doug convinces himself that if he can just get his hands on the files, he’ll be able to finish the book, and his life will take a new direction. His quest leaves him with the “horrible feeling that he’d jumped down the wrong rabbit hole.”

Hundred year houseMeanwhile, Gracie’s second husband, Bruce sinks into an end-of-world millennium scenario, so hoarding and stockpiling, he prepares for Armageddon. To add to the complications, Bruce’s severely depressed and freshly fired son, Case, and his artist wife Miriam arrive from Texas to share the coach house with Doug and Zee. All the old status quo dissolves as new alliances form: Zee begins a campaign to get a colleague fired in order to get her husband a job, a trail of bad luck dogs Case, and Trash Artist Miriam forms a renegade bond with Doug. …

Other sections take us back into the history of the house and questions or incidents left in previous sections are eventually answered. The first section of the book set in 1999 was lively & very funny. There’s an ongoing joke that Zee, a Marxist scholar is Marxist–a difference people either don’t understand or deliberately choose not to. Many of the things Zee does or says have a way of boomeranging back at her with snide comments that she’s a commie. Here’s a scene at a university party in which Zee’s arch nemesis,  fellow professor Cole, a professor gets his digs in:

Cole, she realized, was talking to her from down the table, pointing his empty fork at her chest. “Comrade Zilla Grant is uncharacteristically withdrawn today,” he called. “I suspect she’s planning her Marxist revolution!” Before the laughter died down, he continued. “This is why I’ll never leave. She’ll replace me with her minions and all the seniors will take ‘Why Dickens Was a Stalinist.’ “

Misogynistic Professor Cole, who pokes fun of Zee at every opportunity, is one of my favourite characters:

Cole stood to give a brief speech about how he planned, in his twenty-first year at the college, to scare each and every student out of his classes, until he was left with “exactly one attractive and intelligent specimen that will grade its own papers and massage my neck.” When even Golda laughed, Zee pretended to as well. Cole must have felt his age protected him against rumors of impropriety, though Zee understood there were plenty of whispers about the man back in the eighties. Zee heard a senior boy claim he knew “for a fact” that the policy of leaving office doors cracked during office conferences could be traced to Cole’s misbehavior some fifteen years earlier. He’d been married once, briefly, but by the time he came back to campus he’d long been a swinging bachelor–attractive, back then, too–so rumors were bound to follow him. The fact that the rumors stuck, though, spoke to his behavior, not his erstwhile good looks.

With sharply drawn, wonderful characters, it was great fun to see all these people acting badly to get what they want, and there’s the definite sense that the arrival of Case and Miriam unleashes a previously dormant force within the house. Something wakes up–something mischievous. Perhaps it’s the creative presence of artist Miriam, but the house seems to reject those it doesn’t want while others blossom in its environment.  Many mysteries are deep in the history of the house, and these include the secret of Edwin Parfitt, exactly what took place during the colony years, and the reasons behind the suicide of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr whose portrait is in the house, and “no matter where you stood, you couldn’t get Violet to meet your gaze.”

This is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like haunting. But it’s a pull not a push.

In some ways, The Hundred-Year House reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s  Life After Lifeboth novels cover long time spans, with buried clues and connections to the central story revealed as the plot moves backwards, and both novels, for their approach, are ambitious. The Hundred-Year House doesn’t quite succeed, and this is only because not enough attention is given to other time periods. As the novel flashes back, the earlier sections–1900 and 1929 screamed for the attention to detail found in the first two sections: 1999 & 1955. I loved the first section with Miriam’s Trash Art and her so-called Barf Period, the way she collects rubbish, stuffing it in her pocket like some sort of bag lady. There’s also the rowdy family poodle, Hidalgo, who has to be distracted by peanuts or he’ll romp on top of visitors. By the time we’re back in 1900 and 1929, the details aren’t there, the characters aren’t as delightfully developed, so the novel feels rushed and sketchy when compared to the first half. But in spite of the novel’s flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed it, loved the optimism, loved the ideas, and the characters, and so I look forward to this young author’s next book. Wanting a book to be about 200 pages longer isn’t a bad thing.

Review copy

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