Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar

"The Great Believers"Featuring the author Rebecca Makkai '99

April 8 - 9, 2022


Rebecca Makkai '99

This year marks the 17th annual Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar, W&L's ultimate book club. Sponsored by the W&L Class of 1951 in honor of its late classmate Tom Wolfe, the program honors a distinguished writer and observer of the American scene. Last year's program featured Delia Owens' bestselling debut novel, "Where the Crawdads Sing," which tells the story of Kya Clark, a young girl abandoned by her parents, who must fend for herself in extremely impoverished circumstances. This year, we turn to one of our own, Rebecca Makkai, W&L class of 1999, whose critically acclaimed novel, "The Great Believers," was a National Book Award Finalist and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2018 by The New York Times Book Review.

Described by Michael Cunningham in his NYTBR review of the novel as "an antidote to our general urge to forget what we'd rather not remember," "The Great Believers" is a dual-plot story about loss and recovery, illness and mortality. Set in Chicago during the 1980s and also, through interwoven chapters, in Paris in 2015, the novel chronicles the rise of the AIDS epidemic among a group of gay men during the early years of the crisis. A parallel story follows a mother's search for her estranged daughter in the labyrinth of contemporary Paris. The daughter has no desire to be found, while her mother, Fiona, terribly seared by the loss of so many friends to AIDS during her youth, may be driven more by a mother's instinct than by love. "The Great Believers," writes Cunningham, "is peppered with surprises, a minor wonder in a narrative so rife with dreadfully foregone conclusions." The writing is crisp and moves at a sure pace, the characters so well-drawn that we are reminded that AIDS has a human face, indeed.

Rebecca Makkai is the author of three other novels: "Music for Wartime," "The Hundred Year House" and "The Borrower." Her fiction has been published in The Best American Short Fiction, Harpers Magazine and Tin House, among many other publications. She lives in Chicago and Vermont with her husband and two daughters.

Joining Rebecca Makkai are Lesley Wheeler, Henry S. Fox Professor of English, and Edward Adams, professor of English. Each will discuss "The Great Believers" from a variety of perspectives. What does the novel tell us about relationships haunted by an oppressive sense of mortality, the human longing for community and the intricacies of family life? Further, what moved Rebecca Makkai to write about the AIDS crisis and the lingering effects of the crisis on those fortunate enough to have survived it? The discussion of these challenging questions should make for a most illuminating seminar.

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