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A Partial History of Lost Causes: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 20, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 90 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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Author One-on-One: Jennifer duBois and Justin Torres

Justin Torres Jennifer DuBois

Justin Torres is the author of the novel, We the Animals. His fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, Tin House, and other publications.

Justin Torres: I knew very little about chess going in, but found it to be one of the most fascinating elements of the novel. Can you talk a little bit about the role of chess--not just in terms of plot but as an overarching conceit?

Jennifer duBois: I'd always been interested in chess, and I thought it served as an apt metaphor for both the political and the philosophical concerns of the book--Irina and Aleksandr are both, and with varying degrees of possible success, trying to outmaneuver pretty formidable opponents. On a structural level, the alternating chapters have something of the feel of a chess game--Irina moves, Aleksandr moves. And, without giving too much away, I think the ending has a certain chess logic to it.

Justin Torres: You use time brilliantly and quite differently for Irina and Aleksandr: Aleksandr's story takes place over thirty years, whereas Irina's story covers only two. How did you arrive at this structure?

Jennifer duBois: Because Irina knows she has this diagnosis in front of her, I wanted her to move through time more slowly; her attention to the world around her actually heightens as the book nears its end. Her journey, at least initially, is a bit subtler than Aleksandr's--she's grappling with mortality, with trying to find meaning and beauty in a finite time span. And as Aleksandr begins to confront those same challenges, time starts to move more slowly for him, too, until the two characters are moving through the novel together side by side.

Justin Torres: I loved the unconventional friendship Irina and Aleksandr forge. Their situations share some deep underlying parallels. How do you see Irina and Aleksandr's relationship working for each of them?

Jennifer duBois: There's the obvious parallel that they both fear for their lives, which unites them. But because their circumstances are different, they have different things to teach and learn from each other. Irina admires Aleksandr's energy and willingness to work for something outside of himself, because she's spent so much time sort of waiting out her life. Meeting Aleksandr forces Irina to realize that some people put their own lives at risk on purpose, because there are things worth doing that for. And Aleksandr admires Irina's fearlessness. He takes so many precautions that he winds up feeling trapped, and he sees that Irina's situation has been in some ways liberating for her--that it's driven her toward a more interesting and daring life. And in the end, it's the strange freedom of Irina's situation that allows her to be useful..


“[An] astonishingly beautiful and brainy debut novel . . . Against the backdrop of Russia’s recent political past, duBois conjures the briefly intersecting lives of two intriguingly complex strangers—prickly, introspective, and achingly lonely—who are nevertheless kindred spirits.  Her prose is both apt and strikingly original . . . So how do we proceed when defeat is inevitable? The stunning novel suggests an answer: We just do. Perseverance, it seems, is its own kind of victory.” —O: The Oprah Magazine

"Gorgeous . . . DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. She has an equal grasp of politics and history, the emotional nuances of her complex characters, and the intricacies of chess. Irina and Aleksandr are difficult people, prickly and formidable, but they’re also sympathetic and flawed, vulnerable and human. DuBois’ evocations of Russia are lush, and her swashbuckling descriptions, whether of chess games, a doomed political campaign, or the anticipation of death, are moving yet startlingly funny—full of bravado, insight, and clarity. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a thrilling debut by a young writer who evidently shares the uncanny brilliance of her protagonists.” —Kate Christensen, Elle

"Jennifer duBois's first novel is a meticulously constructed tale of intertwining destinies. Irina, a young American facing an unbearable diagnosis, and Aleksandr, a former Soviet chess champion turned dissident politician, are brought together by a long-forgotten letter that asks how to carry on with a lost cause. Ranging from Massachusetts to Moscow and covering several decades, A Partial History of Lost Causes abounds and fascinates with dark wit and poignant insight, chess and politics, frozen rivers and neon nightclubs.” —Maggie Shipstead, Salon

“Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination. Jennifer duBois is too young to be this talented.  I wish I were her.”—Gary Shteyngart

An amazing achievement—a braiding of historical, political, and personal, each strand illuminating the other. Wonderful characters, elusive glimpses of wisdom, and a gripping story that accelerates to just the right ending.”—Arthur Phillips
“Thrilling, thoughtful, strange, gorgeous, political, and deeply personal, Jennifer duBois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes is a terrific debut novel. In prose both brainy and beautiful, she follows her characters as they struggle to save each other. This is a book to get lost in.”—Elizabeth McCracken

“By what exquisite strategy did duBois settle on this championship permutation of literary moves? Her debut is a chess mystery with political, historical, philosophical, and emotional heft, a paean to the game and the humans who play it. DuBois probes questions of identity, death, art, and love with a piercing intelligence and a questing heart.”—Heidi Julavits
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)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press; First Edition edition (March 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400069777
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069774
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (90 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,364,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The marketing blurb tells us: "In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov begins a quixotic quest. With his renowned Cold War-era tournaments behind him, Aleksandr has turned to politics, launching a dissident presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin." This immediately brings to mind real-world chess champion and dissident Gary Kasparov. But Bezetov's life diverges from Kasparov's at birth, as they hail from opposite edges of the Soviet Union. DuBois does later bring in an echo of the epic first Karpov-Kasparov match, but she changes the ending.

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, she tells (in the first person) the story of Irina Ellison, an English lecturer. Irina has watched her father die a young and unpleasant death from Huntington's disease; genetic testing has sentenced her to the same fate. In response, she is proceeding aimlessly with life. This is where the book becomes a bit too precious at times. The Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate treating the English lecturer as the center of the (or at least her) universe. This is ameliorated with some self-deprecation on Irina's part, but at times she's so self-absorbed that it is hard to feel the intended sympathy for her.

Irina then up and moves to Russia, and the threads entangle.

The author has done her homework on Russia, and life in the oppressed Soviet Union and later in Russia sometimes reads truer than does life in Massachusetts. She is also able to evoke a rich sense of place and atmosphere in her writing.

Perhaps where DuBois most excels is in creating characters. She is very good at getting inside their heads and laying out their inner narratives.

But something always seemed not quite right as I read the book.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The good news: It's undeniably well-written, the author has an impressive vocabulary; and there are some moments, mostly toward the end, where I did feel real pity and concern for the characters. The bad news is that even with all that, "A Partial History of Lost Causes" failed to move me or ultimately make me care about the characters. Many times when I was reading, I stopped to wonder why, with two characters who were under the threat of becoming terminally ill/being murdered, I didn't feel anything. They might as well have been chess pieces. While detachment (denial?) strikes me as authentic upon discovering you have a terminal illness, aren't there other, more messy stages to go through after the numbness wears off?

The story alternates narration between Aleksandr Bezetov, a chess prodigy newly arrived Leningrad, Russia (1979-) and Irina Ellison, an English teacher whose father has died of Huntington's disease, who is an amateur chess enthusiast in Cambridge, Mass. 2006. Upon discovering that her father wrote a letter to Bezetov and received a tepid reply from his secretary, she decides to take a trip to Moscow to see him in person. When she gets there, she discovers that Bezetov has become political and is running against Putin on a, well, anti-Putnin platform. (The political journal he used to distribute for his friends in his younger days is titled "A Partial History of Lost Causes.") Surprisingly, for someone in his position, he's been exposed to very little danger, partly through his own efforts, but partly from (amazingly good) luck.

The characters' narratives struck me both as quasi-autistic and detached.
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Format: Hardcover
Life is like a chess game and A Partial History of Lost Causes is the manual on how to live a life doomed to be interrupted by death. A Partial History of Lost Causes is the story of two unique individuals and their journey through life to a crossroads where their lives intersect.

Alexsandr's character is loosely based on the real life Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov. Alexsandr is the King of the novel who retires from chess and decides to run a losing campaign against Putin. He surrounds himself with pawns who support his political game that is ultimately controlled by Vladimir Putin. Yet he cannot forget the woman he loved in his youth and he is haunted by his friend Ivan's death.

Irina is a thirty something American who is awaiting the onset of Huntington's disease which she inherited from her father. The Queen of the novel, she escapes to Russia after finding a letter her father wrote to Alexsandr. Irina is fighting a losing battle against a horrible illness and she is hoping Alexsandr can answer her father's question and thereby help her go on with her life. She does not know how to live a life that is doomed.

A Partial History of Lost Causes is one meaty, multi-layered story. The novel gives the reader a lot to learn and discuss. Alexsandr and Irina are both lost causes and the theme of the story runs throughout the book. Dubois's writing is beautiful and her descriptions are unique and imaginative.

Every once in a awhile a book comes along that takes place in a part of the world that is part of your own personal history. The history of the book covers an era or a time that you remember being a small part of. A Partial History of Lost Causes takes place in St Petersburg and Moscow, Russia from 1979 to 2008.
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