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A Partial History of Lost Causes (2011)

by Jennifer DuBois

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3903664,133 (3.78)27
Fiction. Literature. Romance. Historical Fiction. HTML:FINALIST FOR THE PEN/HEMINGWAY PRIZE FOR DEBUT FICTION
 
In Jennifer duBois’s mesmerizing and exquisitely rendered debut novel, a long-lost letter links two disparate characters, each searching for meaning against seemingly insurmountable odds. With uncommon perception and wit, duBois explores the power of memory, the depths of human courage, and the endurance of love.
 
NAMED BY THE NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION AS A 5 UNDER 35 AUTHOR • WINNER OF THE CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD GOLD MEDAL FOR FIRST FICTION • WINNER OF THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY O: THE OPRAH MAGAZINE
“Astonishingly beautiful and brainy . . . [a] stunning novel.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

 
“I can’t remember reading another novel—at least not recently—that’s both incredibly intelligent and also emotionally engaging.”—Nancy Pearl, NPR
 
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.
 
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Salon • BookPage
 
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
 
Praise for A Partial History of Lost Causes
 
“A thrilling debut . . . [Jennifer] DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. . . . Full of bravado, insight, and clarity.”—Elle
 
“DuBois is precise and unsentimental. . . . She moves with a magician’s control between points of view, continents, histories, and sympathies.”—The New Yorker
 
“A real page-turner . . . a psychological thriller of great nuance and complexity.”—The Dallas Morning News
 
“Terrific . . . In urgent fashion, duBois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past thirty years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination.”—Gary Shteyngart.
… (more)
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» See also 27 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
I am drawn to novels about Russia. Why not. For decades it was our partner in the dance of potential mutual and world destruction. It has all the political intrigue you could want. It's awesomely vast. It's European, but it's European in a way quite different from the the familiar comfort of western Europe. The many hardships that drive down life expectancy there can make for potentially good stories, a poor trade off for Russians surely but useful for novelists.

So I was intrigued by the plot of this book. In modern Russia, a world chess champion braves the threat of death to lead the futile task of challenging the autocratic and corrupt rule of Vladimir Putin. In America, a young college professor with a death sentence of her own in the form of a hereditary genetic disease finds a letter her father wrote to this Russian decades ago. Her father, about to lose himself to this genetic disease, wrote to ask how one should carry on in the face of certain oncoming defeat. He imagined the Russian might have an answer. No answer came, and now the young American, casting about for a way to react herself, decides to move to Russia, find this man, and get that answer.

The setup is just the smallest bit awkward. Chapters alternate between the Aleksandr of the past almost three decades as he opposes and finally conforms (in a troublesome sort of way) to the Soviet regime, involved in both dissident politics and chess, and Irina in present day America and Russia. Both characters are richly drawn and their psychology and motives well established. The payoff comes about arguably somewhat improbably, with Aleksandr, now opposing the Putin regime, impulsively hiring Irina to be one of his three closest assistants, but if that's accepted then their relationship develops realistically and finally touchingly, nicely avoiding anything maudlin in its hardheadedness.

The political aspect of the novel is interesting, with a conspiracy theory about how Putin rose to power coming to the fore near the end of the book. As someone who values historical accuracy in works of fiction, I'm a bit troubled by the historicity of this, but it makes for a powerful plot thread so I'm going to take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the story. The personal aspect of the novel is astonishingly well done for a first time novelist, and very thoughtful and intelligent. It is full of well observed truths, as when Irina talks about the reactions she gets when she tells people of her fatal diagnosis:

"I will admit it sometimes felt strange to me to make the confession to someone and later catch them laughing, or flirting, or eating a sandwich, instead of tearing at the injustice of it all or sitting quietly at the center of a grand and monstrous grief. The disaster of my life might be only the worst thing another person heard that afternoon; they might have forgotten by dinnertime; they might have been more heartbroken by watching certain movies."

Quite enjoyable novel, in a bleak Russian sort of way. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES by Jennifer duBois had been an unread book in my bookcase for long enough; I finally read it. But I must have expected too much. I remember all the reviews gushing over this book, but I was underwhelmed.

So much has already been written about A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES, I won't summarize it here. But I will say that duBois' writing is beautiful, really beautiful. It should make you want to continue even when the story is dragging.

And that is the problem: the story is slow. In my mind, I was urging duBois to get to the point the whole time I was reading the book.

Also, there isn’t much depth to either of the main characters. Therefore, points that should be sad or nerve wracking aren’t. ( )
  techeditor | Jun 8, 2020 |
I find a huge slice of irony in the fact that this book was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award since I can only assume that the author, editor and every reviewer praising the book must hate ol' Ernie with a passion. After all, Hemingway would prune a sentence down to a noun and a verb and then try to prune it even more. And he would take the same less-is-more approach with paragraphs and chapters. This book, on the other hand, never met a sentence or a paragraph or chapter that it didn't think needed more ten-dollar words or clauses or asides or all three. And way too much of the extraneous stuff was pretentiousness on steroids. I could go on and on, but then I'd be guilty of the same offense that the writer and editor were guilty of here. Let's just say that it would be easy to assume that the author was being paid by the word.

That's not to say that there aren't some really good observations here because that wouldn't be a fair statement. I would have just saved 80% of them for future books. Nonetheless, here are a few examples that impressed me enough to highlight as I went along:

* There’s an intimacy in listening to somebody’s lies, I’ve always thought--you learn more about someone from the things they wish were true than from the things that actually are.
* She sounded like she thought I was selling something, which was a reasonable conclusion. I’ve found that most people are selling something, even if they don’t always know what.
* I was relieved by the extent of her English; the ability to communicate scorn should be the true test of fluency in any language.
* “I think the only way to properly face doom is to be on time.”

As for the story itself, it's the tale of two protagonists: chess master and eventual Russian presidential wannabe Aleksandr (told in the third-person omniscient) and Irina, a dying academic whose first-person story revolves around her decision to spend the remainder of her own life pursuing an unanswered question from her late father's life: what do you do when faced with a no-win scenario? Well, if you're Captain James T. Kirk, then you cheat, win and move on. But if you're Aleksandr or Irina, you flail about a lot. As characters, Aleksandr may be less tedious than Irina, but both are relentlessly self-absorbed navel-gazers. Irina just doubles down by being far more annoying on the pretentious bloat side of things, usually in the form of internal monologue. And boy, does she enjoy the internal monologues. And in the end, I don't know who was trying harder to show the reader how intelligent he or she was: Aleksandr, Irina or the author.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between the two protagonists, with Aleksandr both introducing the story and wrapping it up. And it was that final chapter and its character fates that lifted this from being a two-star read for me. Still, this book was a major chore overall even though I could see that the author has talent. Maybe she needed a better editor or maybe she just needed to stop trying so hard. All I know is that I can't remember the last time I was more grateful to be done with a book, and now I need to reread some Hemingway to even things out a bit. ( )
1 vote jimgysin | Mar 22, 2019 |
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 |
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And if in this wide world I die, then I'll die from joy that I'm alive.
--Yevgeny Tevtuschenko
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When Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great gray span of the Neva.
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Fiction. Literature. Romance. Historical Fiction. HTML:FINALIST FOR THE PEN/HEMINGWAY PRIZE FOR DEBUT FICTION
 
In Jennifer duBois’s mesmerizing and exquisitely rendered debut novel, a long-lost letter links two disparate characters, each searching for meaning against seemingly insurmountable odds. With uncommon perception and wit, duBois explores the power of memory, the depths of human courage, and the endurance of love.
 
NAMED BY THE NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION AS A 5 UNDER 35 AUTHOR • WINNER OF THE CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD GOLD MEDAL FOR FIRST FICTION • WINNER OF THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY O: THE OPRAH MAGAZINE
“Astonishingly beautiful and brainy . . . [a] stunning novel.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

 
“I can’t remember reading another novel—at least not recently—that’s both incredibly intelligent and also emotionally engaging.”—Nancy Pearl, NPR
 
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.
 
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Salon • BookPage
 
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
 
Praise for A Partial History of Lost Causes
 
“A thrilling debut . . . [Jennifer] DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. . . . Full of bravado, insight, and clarity.”—Elle
 
“DuBois is precise and unsentimental. . . . She moves with a magician’s control between points of view, continents, histories, and sympathies.”—The New Yorker
 
“A real page-turner . . . a psychological thriller of great nuance and complexity.”—The Dallas Morning News
 
“Terrific . . . In urgent fashion, duBois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past thirty years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination.”—Gary Shteyngart.

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