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A Partial History of Lost Causes: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Jennifer DuBois

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Member:reluctantm
Title:A Partial History of Lost Causes: A Novel
Authors:Jennifer DuBois
Info:Dial Press Trade Paperback (2012), Paperback, 400 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, read in 2013
Rating:***
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A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois

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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 |
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 |
Today chess is often associated with old men in woolen sweaters who lived and loved in the 1940’s. What was once thought of as a prestigious game, is now considered more of a respectable hobby. The computer has replaced the brain as the quickest calculating machine, leaving many games like chess in its quake. This book is about two people and how their relationship with chess has brought them together. The main character is a brilliant man named Aleksandr Bezetov and the book describes the struggles that he endures while living in a chaotic Russia. It is a fascinating story of a brutal time in which people are ruled by the iron hand of the KGB. People are imprisoned and tortured for the tiniest of infractions. Chess is a way to temporary safeguard a position for Aleksandr and his family. It is a way to earn income and bring prestige to his name. However, he soon discovers the horrors that occur in the everyday life of his peers and decides to take action. This book is a journey into the past and a gradual move toward the future. It shares both the career growth of Aleksandr and the second character’s (Irina Ellison) visit to Russia.

I found this book to be a very interesting interpretation of both the political and economic events of Russia. I like how the author used the game of chess as a way to introduce the reader to Putin and a communist Russia. I find that most of what the author wrote about could easily be applied to some major current events of today. I found both Aleksandr to be well thought out and his role to be excellent. He demonstrated how an average and a not so average citizen of Russia was watched and arrested. No one person was protected. I really feel that the book did not even need Irina. I understand that the author was using her to make an important statement to the reader. However, I honestly believe that this book could have stood alone without her. There was ample enough story without her and I really found Aleksandr’s story to be more interesting and often found myself skipping a couple of pages to get to his section. I found Irina to be a little pitiful and boring, while I admired Aleksandr for his persistence in pushing forward. Either way I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it. For those that enjoy a more intellectual read, than this book is a must for you. I advise you to read it when you have ample time to spare or are on vacation. I also would like to thank the author and goodreads since this was given to me in a giveaway. It was much appreciated and I had a great time. ( )
  Jennifer35k | Sep 12, 2014 |
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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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