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Posts Tagged ‘1980’s’

Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

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I started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

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The 1980’s references in Carol Rifka Brunt‘s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, are thick and resonant. A Holly Hobby wallpaper border. Gunne Sax dresses. “99 Luftballoons,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the diner jukebox. Suzanne Vega on Saturday Night Live.Those skinny black rubber bracelets we wore by the dozens. Ryan White. Reagan’s speech on AIDS. Kids playing D&D after school.

I was nineteen in late 1986 when this book opens. The teenaged sisters at the center of the story, June and Greta, are a little younger, but their world felt oh-so-familiar to me. Even the woods June hangs out in behind her school were similar to woods I went to behind my own neighborhood school.

But if this setting isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry. Rifka Brunt gives readers meaty details on every page. The smell of the stew in the crock pot, the scent of June’s uncle on his wool coat and of Greta’s Jean Nate, the howling June hears in the woods, a jar of guitar picks, a neon orange lighter, Greta singing, Toby’s hacking cough and his “thick and gurgly” breathing.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home evokes these specific kids of sights and smells and sounds, making it possible to enter the story sensually. But it also evokes such primal and universal feelings and experiences that I couldn’t help also being very emotionally drawn in. Siblings changing as teens and and not really understanding what’s happening. Trying to figure out one’s place in both the miniature world of one’s family and the larger world. Experiencing a death in the family for the first time. Learning about your parents as people, and as younger versions of themselves.

Without giving too much away, here’s the gist of the story. June is a quirky kid, into medieval history, mad about Mozart’s Requiem, feeling like a misfit as her childhood world gives way and her old friends, including Greta, seem to grow up and away from her. She has a rich inner life, imagining herself in other times and places. Her Uncle Finn is the only person she feels really understands her.

When the novel opens Finn is dying of AIDS. He’s also painting a portrait of June and Greta. Not long after he dies June finds out Finn has had a partner, living in the apartment she visited every week, for nine years and she never knew anything about him. This man, Toby, contacts her and begins to share things he says Finn wanted her to have. Among them, a note asking her to look after Toby.

As June starts to unravel the things her family has hidden from her, she’s also negotiating her tricky relationship with her sister, who is at turns cruel and tender. Rifka Brunt really nails that adolescent weirdness of sometimes forgetting yourself with your siblings and parents, allowing yourself to be the kid you often still feel like, and then catching that happening and trying to be the separate young adult you also often feel like.

June is a fantastic character who manages to be a unique and fully drawn person and also a symbol of adolescence in all its glorious mess. Greta, Finn, and Toby are fully themselves even though they are the satellites to June’s star, and even Ben, a minor but occasionally important character, makes an impression as a full person. I thought June and Greta’s parents — especially their mother, whose role in June’s new understanding of family dynamics is key — were somewhat less fully formed.

But overall I found Tell the Wolves I’m Home to be a very satisfying and enjoyable read. If you like your novels character-driven and full of redemption and growth, this is for you. It’s beautifully evocative, the dialogue felt true, and the writing is real, for lack of a better word. This is the second book I’ve read lately with a very interesting, strong teen girl setting the quarrelsome or misguided adults straight —Where’d You Go, Bernadette being the other. If this is a trend, I like it.

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