Friday, November 30, 2012


A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer duBois, The Dial Press, 2012, 369 pp

After a series of less than wonderful reads, I wanted to read a book that just called out to me from my shelves. I chose this book for its title. Also because it is set partly in Russia and I am a sucker for books set in any time period of that country. I was so rewarded!

It is not a perfect novel, whatever that means. Ms duBois is young, named one the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" for 2012. This is her first novel though according to her bio she has studied hard and practiced much. All of that speaks well for her but I think her biggest asset is her imagination.

The story opens as Aleksandr arrives in 1979 Leningrad, a young chess prodigy having traveled for six days from the extreme eastern end of Russia. He is unsophisticated and clueless, but has escaped a hopeless, dreary life and dares to hope for his future. His arrival coincides with Stalin's centenary and within a year he will have survived the indignities of substandard communist housing, the cold, and the chess academy, while befriending a wanted trio of dissidents and falling in love.

In the second chapter Irina begins her story. It is 2006 in Cambridge, MA. Irina learned to play chess from her father, a college level music teacher, fierce student of Cold War politics, and eccentric, who died of Huntington's disease. Irina observed at close hand his ten years of decline and death. Knowing that Huntington's is hereditary, she got herself tested and learned at age 22 that she had a 50% chance of hitting the onset of symptoms at age 32.

Meanwhile, Alexandr became the chess champion of the Soviet Union; Irina's father had sent him a letter and received a reply but not an answer to an impassioned question. So began the connection which powers the plot.

When I was in college, one of my best friends got cancer and was given a year to live. She had been blind since the age of three but was an extremely adventurous, empowered person. She rode bikes, knitted, played guitar and was doing extremely well at the University of Michigan. She spent the last year of her life touring the world.

In 2004, my father died in an Alzheimers home after his own decade of decline. I have a slight worry about going that way myself. I often wonder if I should just throw caution to the wind and live as wildly and dangerously as I can before I fall into any sort of reduced condition. That may be why I loved this book so much.

When Irina turns 30, she goes to Russia looking for Alexandr. Her father's question in his letter was, "How does one proceed in a lost cause?" By this time, Alexandr has faced a few lost causes of his own. Irina needs an answer. She has become equal parts depressed and driven.

I did not love every page. Ms duBois weaves a convoluted tale. Irina is hard to know, maddening at times; Alexandr a most unlikely hero; St Petersburg and Moscow dangerous, mysterious cities protecting secrets both ancient and modern. I often felt lost and confused, but never was I tempted to give up reading. Ultimately what is a mash-up of tragedy, philosophy, humor, and adventure came together in marvelous ways and a finale of hope for the world.

(A Partial History of Lost Causes is now out in paperback. It is available as an eBook as well by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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