Review

A Partial History of Lost Causes

by Jennifer duBois

That sweet feeling of settling into a satisfying read washes over you as soon as your eyes feast on the opening paragraphs of this mesmerizing debut novel. Jennifer duBois intertwines 30 years of Russian political history, played out against a search by a desperate young American woman in search of a reason to live and a Russian icon equally determined to bring truth and freedom to his homeland. These two strangers, separated by their culture, age and circumstances, are brought together by a letter from the past that was never received, and a future filled with life-threatening challenges.

"That sweet feeling of settling into a satisfying read washes over you as soon as your eyes feast on the opening paragraphs of this mesmerizing debut novel.... duBois tells this gripping tale of political intrigue, romantic idealism, pathos and triumph over crushing obstacles in a political thriller at once heartwarming and heartbreaking."

In St. Petersburg, Russian chess prodigy Aleksandr Bezetov, who rose to international fame during the Cold War as he became world chess champion, is on an idealistic but hopeless crusade against Vladimir Putin in his 2006 presidential campaign. The stakes are as high as the odds are long against success, but Bezetov is determined to wage a war of ideas against the entrenched power structure of the new Russia --- dangerous men with the reign of power firmly in their grasp. Lesser men have died or been imprisoned or tortured for opposing the brutish hard-liners, but so far Bezetov’s high profile has kept him safe, although he lives surrounded by security, a prisoner by his own design.  

Irina Ellison, a Harvard English lecturer, has just learned that she carries the gene for Huntington’s disease that recently took the life of her father, a once-brilliant musician and chess master. She discovers a letter that he wrote to Bezetov during the early years when the young Russian overcame one loss after another to finally achieve his goal to the world chess title. Irina’s father had taught her to play chess, and she had grown up watching Bezetov’s widely acclaimed matches. He was a great admirer of the young chess whiz and, having just learned of his disease at the time, had written to Bezetov for words to inspire him to maintain his struggle in the face of such overwhelming odds. Irina suspects that the letter was never answered, and now, after witnessing the horrific 20-year decline and death of her father, she knows that this, too, will be her fate.  She has been told that the onset of symptoms is imminent. She tosses caution to the winds, leaving her lover and her position at Harvard to travel to Russia in pursuit of the elusive Bezetov. She hopes to have him give her the answers he never gave her father.

duBois tells this gripping tale of political intrigue, romantic idealism, pathos and triumph over crushing obstacles in a political thriller at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. The parallel lives of Bezetov and Ellison are played out like pieces in a chess match. The deft handling of this intense storyline further amplifies duBois’s intellectual grasp of three seemingly disparate subjects. A plot based on such sobering subject matter could turn into a polemic or become sentimentally maudlin, but such is her immense literary skill as she writes with wit, irony and depth of knowledge that we are instantly caught up in a story that has you in its thrall right to the surprisingly satisfying end.

duBois is a product of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which for almost eight decades has produced some of the icons of literature. Among the notable graduates or Pulitzer Prize winners are T.S. Boyle, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley, Wallace Stegner, Robert Penn Warren, Phillip Roth and John Cheever. A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES is a tour de force on its own, but this young writer shows so much promise, we can only look forward to much more from her creative mind.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on March 22, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes
by Jennifer duBois

  • Publication Date: August 21, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0812982177
  • ISBN-13: 9780812982176