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A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer…
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A Partial History of Lost Causes

by Jennifer DuBois

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In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov begins a quixotic quest: He launches a dissident presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. He knows he will not win—and that he is risking his life in the process—but a deeper conviction propels him forward.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirty-year-old English lecturer Irina Ellison struggles for a sense of purpose. Irina is certain she has inherited Huntington’s disease—the same cruel illness that ended her father’s life. When Irina finds an old, photocopied letter her father wrote to the young Aleksandr Bezetov, she makes a fateful decision. Her father asked the chess prodigy a profound question—How does one proceed in a lost cause?—but never received an adequate reply. Leaving everything behind, Irina travels to Russia to find Bezetov and get an answer for her father, and for herself. ( )
  camtb | Feb 25, 2018 |
What becomes of a life when the ending has been predetermined? Not some abstract ending to a life well or poorly lived but a grisly knowledge of how and the unthinkable conditions of your demise. Irina's story is about her ending. There is so much more to this book but I just couldn't' or didn't want to get past Irina. The words and the thoughts were haunting. The timelines were interesting but I thought the approach to the ending just a little too neat. ( )
  kimkimkim | Aug 21, 2017 |
When 12 year old Irina suddenly beats her father in chess, it marks the beginning of his downward slope into the terrible disability that is Huntington Disease. Her father followed the great Russian chess masters and once corresponded with the world champion Alexandr Bezetov. A letter found by Irina after her father's passing becomes the motivation for her journey to Russia, in search of the former chess player now turned political dissident. Irina, who at 30 knows that the genetic markings of her father will begin soon with her, is looking for an answer. It is the same question her father asked of the famous Russian: how do you continue to go on playing when you know the game will end in defeat.
Meanwhile in alternating chapters, (much like a chess match), we see Bezetov, starting back in 1980, when being a 20 year old prodigy could help propel a young mind out of poverty. Alexandr is taken to Leningrad's prestigious chess academy where he will eventually be groomed to be Russia's symbol of superiority. Alexandr' s journey from disgruntled star to heading a dissident party of Alternative Russia is the most fascinating part of the novel, a glimpse of Putin's Russia where any complaining voice may soon be silenced. As the 2008 Russian election grows closer, he too knows that he has no chance of winning. This is the set up for A Partial History of Lost Causes, a very well written, character driven story, remarkably rendered by a 35 year old in her first novel. Jennifer duBois was recognized as a National book award 5 under 35 winner and the Bookpage Best Book of 2012. It's amazing how talented a new novelist can be and how successful the Iowa Writers Workshop has been.

Here are some lines to remember:
"He hugged me. He smelled of ash, with wilder undertones of coffee and sky and liquor before noon."

Bezetov about his true love Elizabeta: "to pine for a year for a woman whose moment in his life had been incidental, glancing, as implausible as a meteor shower or a brain aneurysm. She had bobbed to the surface of his life, then disappeared again. She’d hovered for half an hour above his personal lake of loneliness, a sea monster in a smudged photograph, probably not even real. She’d been above water for minutes. She’d barely even waved."

Irina's reaction to her first meeting with Nikolai: "He leaned in closer to me. He stank of undercooked meat, of cheap alcohol, of the threat of violence. I thought I might faint from sheer character weakness."

And my favorite line: "I think the only way to properly face doom is to be on time.” ( )
  novelcommentary | Mar 4, 2017 |
The story in A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois is told in chapters that alternate between two narrators: Aleksandr Bezetov and Irina Ellison. The novel opens in 1979 when Aleksandr Bezetov was in training in Leningrad/St. Petersburg and on his way to becoming a world chess champion. Chapters follow Aleksandr into the 1980's and then quickly become current. Irina's chapters begin in 2006 when we learn of her father's long protracted bout with Huntington's disease and her diagnosis to suffer the same fate. Irina finds a copy of a letter her father had written to Aleksandr years ago, asking him what is the proper way to proceed when you know you’re losing? Aleksandr had never replied to her father's question so Irina feels compelled to travel to Russia to ask him for his answer to the question her father posed to him years before. When Irina arrives in Russia, Aleksandr is running for president against Vladimir Putin.

Since Aleksandr is a chess champion, the game and symbolism from chess play a major role in the novel - if only in it's constant presence. Having the chapters alternate between characters from different parts of the world imitates the two distinct players in a chess match. Even the surprising actions of the characters could mimic strategic chess moves. All the characters are faced with carrying on with their lives while facing lost causes, just as a chess match continues and players follow the rules even while knowing that, in the end, someone will lose. In this case both players (characters) seem fearful of life as they both face the ultimate formidable opponent: death.

DuBois is clearly a very good writer and she displays a wonderful way with her prose. To her credit it's actually hard to believe at times that A Partial History of Lost Causes is her first novel. There were several sections I'd love to quote just so others can experience the beauty of her writing but in this case, since I was reading an advanced reading copy, you will have to follow the link below for an example of her writing. She does an admirable job setting the tone and place with her descriptions. I thought DuBois was equally proficient in capturing Irina's current life in Massachusetts as she was in describing Aleksandr's life and struggles in the Soviet Union in the early 1980's.

On the other hand, while I enjoyed the novel, there were some drawbacks for me. The set up leading to Irina's sudden departure to Russia, leaving everyone behind and events leading to her prolonged stay in Russia seemed almost too sudden. Eventually, I did end up feeling somewhat detached from the characters. This isn't always the case when I am presented with novels where the main characters are dislikeable or self-absorbed, but, as A Partial History of Lost Causes progressed, my interest in what would happen to both Aleksandr and Irina lessened.

A Partial History of Lost Causes is a dark, somber tale - part psychological character study and political/historical thriller, it is highly recommended.


Disclosure:I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. http://shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/

( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
It is hard to process that this is the debut work of an author. She has taken what is traditionally been a heavy involved subject, life in Russia and created a dirge to the Cold War era, embracing the “interminable stretch of a Russian winter” evoking the cold and dark weather and showing life in Eastern Europe as Dostoyevsky did. Her mind pictures are dramatic, each paragraph as if a postcard into the sole of her characters.
She takes the well-worn subject of Russia’s mastery of modern-day chess, creates a character steeped in the game, Aleksandr and shows us how someone of meager beginnings can build a protected empire through the country’s one-upmanship with America for personal gain and advance through the corrupt political system to mount a run at the presidency against Putin in a quixotic and valiant attempt.
Irina, an American student who was brought up playing chess with her father, and is now preparing to her life to Huntington’s disease, just as her father had done takes on her own impossible dream, and meet the chess-player that her father had sent letters to, and in a role of finding purpose in her life leaves everything behind to chase her lost cause.
Their paths tangle and mesh in the most highly improbable fashion and both help form a lasting impression on each other’s fate as well as Russia itself. An improbable tale of endurance and love that will guide the reader down a path of unrequited expectation.
( )
  MarkPSadler | Jan 17, 2016 |
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Abandoning her life when her father succumbs to Huntington's disease, Massachusetts native Irina discovers an unanswered letter from her father to an internationally renowned chess champion and political dissident, whom she decides to visit in Russia.… (more)

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