#WomenReadWomen2019 Adult Award-Winning Books Genre Lifespan of a Reader Literary Fiction Reading Themes Sisterhood and Female Bonds

A Fraught Mother-Daughter Relationship Against A Backdrop of the AIDS Crisis in Chicago

Rebecca Makkai's "The Great Believers."

Myra here.

This is a multi-award-winning novel that I probably would not have picked up if not for my virtual Facebook book club organized by a librarian friend of mine.

While this book does not really depict sisterhood, it does peripherally touch on the fraught relationship between one of the minor characters Fiona and her daughter, Claire, that I thought was still worth exploring here.


The Great Believers

Written by Rebecca Makkai
Published by Little Brown Book Group (2018)
ISBN: 0708899110 (ISBN13: 9780708899113). Literary Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2019), National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2018), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2018). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library.

This book was not very popular with our Facebook Book Club members. A few found it uninteresting and difficult to get through. I felt otherwise. Admittedly, it took awhile to get used to the alternating timelines: 1985 with the AIDS crisis in Chicago, then 2015 in France depicting the lives of those who survived the AIDS epidemic.

At the heart of the novel is making sense of what it was like to have so many people die young – and its indelible effect on those who managed to survive. But there is also art, beauty, lust, infidelities, forged friendships, and the endless parties of the seemingly-invulnerable who have been helplessly hit hard and fast by a disease that spares no one, not even those who lived through it.

I felt that there were too many characters in the novel. It was a struggle keeping track of who’s who, but after awhile, I got the hang of it. This is a story that I feel is meant to be made into a TV series. Yet despite the plot-driven narrative and the multitude of characters, it was a group that felt familiar to me: a group of friends that seemed distant but whom I did care about, albeit fleetingly. Every night, I looked forward to slipping into their skin, and learning about Yale’s struggles, Fiona’s failed motherhood, the fate of the art collection that is being donated to Yale’s institute (who knew this could be such a page-turner), and who the disease will ravage next.

Truth be told, this is more a gay guy’s novel – but evidently written from a straight female’s perspective. Fiona’s brother has died of the disease and she has ended up taking care of his other friends who are just about to die, barely surviving, or have lived through the AIDS crisis. There is nothing about how lesbians may have experienced the disease, it simply wasn’t about that – it was primarily “Saint Fiona of Boystown” as Claire calls her mother, and not in an affectionate manner. There was a cursory mention of how a hospital in Chicago refused to treat female patients, but that was pretty much it.

Yet despite this, there were some women’s issues raised as well, as evident in the quote below – which I felt was a sharp jab at men in general, regardless of their sexuality:

I did not find Fiona’s character to be sympathetic: she was flawed, lost, and filled with good intentions that did not really amount to much in the end. I had zero sympathy for her daughter, Claire, whom I felt to be entitled and took pleasure in blaming all her wrong decisions on mother issues. There was no sense of agency at all, just a convenient shifting of blame to parents who are only all-too-willing to flagellate themselves to make sense of missed opportunities and a life gone to naught.

It was interesting to witness the dynamics of mother and daughter who seemed unable to communicate in a way that suggested a genuine seeing of each other’s beings. There was always the presumption of blame, fault-finding, and the stench of judgment and failure to live up to each other’s perceived expectations. I breezed through the last few pages of the novel. While I would not call this one of my most unforgettable reads of the year, I enjoyed its vulnerable voice and its fearless truth.


#WomenReadWomen2019: United States of America

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Singapore. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she serves as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads or meeting up with her book club friends, she is smashing that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life.

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