A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois
In this powerful debut novel by Jennifer Dubois, the central question is how one proceeds in the face of sure defeat. I believe this story will resonate as strongly with others as it did with me since this question is one that presents itself to most of us at some point in life.
Irina Ellison’s story begins when she is a young girl beginning to realize the toll Huntington’s disease will take on the body and mind of her beloved father who is devoted to chess, politics, and all things Russian. After his death, she finds a copy of a letter to Aleksandr Bezetov, a young Russian chess prodigy in the 1980s, asking him how he proceeds when faced with a lost cause. The letter was never answered.
After tests show that Irina herself will share her father’s fate, her eventual response after a period of drifting is to give up her job, friends, family connections, and lover to journey to Russia in 2006. She plans to find Aleksandr and to get an answer for herself to her father’s question.
In the years since the letter was written, Aleksandr has become not only the Russian but also the World Chess Champion. His story develops from the late 1970s to the time of Irina’s journey to Russia when he has retired from chess after his defeat at the game by a computer.
As a young chess player in St. Petersburg, Aleksandr started a clandestine career as a dissident by distributing a journal written by friends titled “A Partial History of Lost Causes.” While the quasi-democratic and capitalistic Russia in the new century is very different than the communist Russia of his youth, Aleksandr has continued his stance as an opponent of the current political situation by running a presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin, a cause that he knows will end in defeat and perhaps his own death. Irina does meet and develop a relationship with Aleksandr. Is her question finally answered conclusively? It was for me but other readers will have to decide that for themselves.
This is a story rich with character and setting. The plot develops slowly, but I felt that was completely necessary to give center stage to the development of Irina and Aleksandr and to introduce many other characters of interest. While I have certainly been aware of historical events in Russia over the past 40 years, my understanding of how they affected the lives of Russians was much enhanced since this was most often the focus of how these events were introduced. The chapters alternate between Irina and Aleksandr. However, only Irina’s story is told in the first person. To me this made her the more real and compelling character, although Aleksandr seemed the more complex personality.
A Partial History of Lost Causes will uplift you and break your heart. It is a treasure for those readers who love chess, history, rich characterization, or those who have lost causes of their own.