I was blown away by this book by Rebecca Makkai. I had heard really good things about it, but hadn’t taken the time to read it until my book club elected to discuss it, at which point I had to get it from the library. Then I couldn’t put it down.
The novel follows two timelines: Yale in 1980s Chicago and Fiona in 2015. I’m going to focus on Yale because more happens with his story and I think it really takes up most of the book.
Yale is a gay man living in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, a.k.a. “Boystown” because of the large gay community there. The AIDS crisis is in full swing and all their friends are dropping like flies around them. In fact, the book opens with Yale and his long-time boyfriend, Charlie, going to a funeral for their friend Nico, who recently died of AIDS. Nico’s parents disowned him and kicked him out of their house when he came out to them as a teenager. His younger sister, Fiona, who was only 11 when he got kicked out, took care of him by bringing him money, food, medicine, etc. When he got sick, his parents suddenly took him back in and paid for his medical care, but they put him in a hospital that didn’t really understand the disease because, at this point, most people still didn’t understand the disease and people who were sick had to deal with discrimination from the people who were supposed to be treating them. Nico’s parents didn’t want any of his gay friends (so, any of his friends) around, so Fiona worked out shifts so they could visit Nico when her parents weren’t around.
Fiona is pretty messed up, and we see that in the 2015 timeline. She never forgave her parents for what they did to Nico, she lost her brother when she was 20, all her friends were his friends and she had to watch them all die one by one over the course of a few years. She was married for a while, but that dissolved because she couldn’t open up to her husband because of her fear of losing everyone she cares about. Things got pretty nasty during the divorce and their daughter, Claire, got caught in the middle, so she’s pretty messed up as a result. She dropped out of college to join a cult and stopped communicating with her mom altogether, so the 2015 timeline starts with Fiona on a plane to Paris because she got a tip that someone who looked kind of like her daughter may have been in Paris a few months ago.
Back in the 1980s, since Nico’s parents were the worst and had no intention of celebrating their son the way he was, Fiona and her friends decide to throw a party for Nico at the house of their friend Richard, an older man who works as a photographer, but hasn’t found success yet, so it’s unclear how he manages to pay for the nice house he lives in. They throw a party because that’s what Nico really wanted, but when the slideshow comes out, Yale decides he doesn’t want to sit around and cry over old pictures with everyone, so he heads upstairs to find a place to lie down. He notices their friend Teddy walking out the front door at the same time and figures Teddy doesn’t want to sit through the slideshow and cry any more than Yale does.
So Yale goes up to take a nap, and he’s not sure how long he’s up there, but figures it couldn’t be very long, but when he comes back downstairs, everyone is gone. He wonders if it’s a big prank everyone is playing on him or if he’s managed to wake up in some dystopian future where he’s the only survive. After a while he gives up and goes home, hoping to find Charlie there. Charlie is not there, but he stumbles in completed wasted in the wee hours of the morning accusing Yale of sleeping with Teddy at Nico’s memorial. Yale explains what really happened and Charlie explains that they had all decided to raid Nico’s apartment to divvy up his things before his parents could get to it. Charlie had asked where Yale was and Fiona had said she thought she saw Yale going upstairs with Teddy.
It turns out Charlie has a history of being super jealous and possessive of Yale. He’s accused Yale of sleeping with and/or wanting to sleep with just about every one of their male friends at one point or another, but it’s all just paranoia because Yale only has eyes for Charlie.
Fast forward a few months and they find out their friend Julian has just been diagnosed with AIDS, and while they’re all shocked and upset, Charlie seems particularly shaken by the news.
Fast forward another month or two and Yale comes home from a work trip to find Charlie’s mom in their apartment, and rather than talking to Yale himself, Charlie locks himself in their bedroom. Charlie’s mom breaks the news to Yale that he might want to get tested … again. Yale is understandably furious when he puts everything together and realizes, not only that Charlie cheated on him, but that Charlie’s paranoia was a way of deflecting the fact that he was the one cheating on Yale.
I was so torn up by this scene that I was depressed for the rest of the day. Makkai has a way of making you feel what her characters are feeling and this scene was just gut wrenching.
So Yale storms out and is wondering where to spend the night. He ends up at Terrence’s place and learns from Terrence that he had walked in on Charlie and Julian going at it in the men’s restroom, but didn’t think it was his place to tell Yale.
Yale does get tested and learns he’s in the clear, but not entirely, because the virus can lay dormant for a while before making its presence known. So he’s not totally in the clear, but the next time he’s on a work trip with a young man who’s still exploring his sexuality, they start having a fling together. Yale is still careful not to infect him, but because he assumes the young guy is a virgin, they don’t bother being careful the other way around. Turns out that was a mistake because the young guy has been out of the closet for a while and having sex with quite a few men.
So Yale gets tested again and this time he isn’t so lucky. To add insult to injury, he learns from a friend that Charlie didn’t just cheat on him one time. He would go out of their neighborhood regularly and hook up with random men in order to avoid being seen by Yale or one of their friends, but the gay community is fairly small, so word gets around. Yale also finds out that Fiona never liked Charlie because he’s the kind of person who always needs to be the center of attention and she never liked how possessive he was of Yale. It’s the kind of thing your friends never tell you until after you break up with your significant other.
I’m ashamed to admit I had never really thought about how devastating the AIDS crisis was or the fact that society as a whole basically ignored it for years until children and straight people started to get infected and they couldn’t ignore it anymore.
I do feel a little guilty reading a book about the gay community by someone who isn’t actually part of that community, but this book felt like it was written with such empathy that I have a hard time begrudging her this story. All these characters felt so real to me – like they could just walk off the page. No one felt like a stereotype, but if you’ve heard otherwise, or if you read the book and felt it didn’t do the gay community justice, I’d love to hear your comments.
What did you read this week? Anything else that just blew you away?