Partial History of Lost Causes (Review)


A Partial History of Lost Causes
Jennifer duBois, 2012
400 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
October, 2012
Jennifer duBois is simply too young to have written such a remarkable book—that's the buzz, what everyone's saying. And I'm saying it, too. A Partial History is sophisticated and brainy—yet packs a huge emotional wallop. All in all, it's a stunning piece of writing.

This is a modern quest story: a young woman, knowing she has a limited time left, sets out to find the secret to life, her life anyway—but also, as it turns out, the life of a famed Russian chess champion.

The novel is double-plotted, told through two sets of eyes—the first set that of World Chess Champion, Aleksandr Bezetov. Bezeteov's story takes place over a period of 30 years—from the time he first arrives at the Soviet chess academy in Leningrad, through his rise as international chess master, and finally, to his role as a presidential candidate in Russia.

The second story is in the present and centers around Irena, a thirty-something American woman living and teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Knowing she has the genetic marker for Hungtington's Disease, which killed her father, she's conducted her life as a series of withdrawals—from family, friends, and lovers. She wants to save them from what will become, like her father's, a hideous, drawn-out demise.

Irena finds a copy of an old letter her father, a chess devotee, had written to Bezetov before he'd become the world champion. Already diagnosed with Huntingtons, her father had asked Bezetov the following question: when you know you're in the midst of a losing game...

what is the proper way to proceed? What story do you tell yourself when that enormous certainty is upon you and you scrape up against the edges of your own self?

Bezetov never responded to her father's question...and now its answer becomes the lodestar for Irena's own life. She needs to know. So she heads off to find Bezetov.

At this point the stories intersect. Irena joins Bezetov's campaign against Russian President Putin, a campaign no one expects him to win. The question of how to proceed when you know your life is a lost cause becomes a question for both Irena and Bezetov—and both provide the answer for the other. It's a beautiful, powerful symmetry.

My only complaint with A Partial History is that it needed a good editing. At times the book feels over-the-top, too much packed into a single line or thought. Some of the prose could have been trimmed back, making it taut, more streamlined and economical.

Still, the novel is a stunning achievement for anyone, at any age—a philosophical treatise that makes you think and yet manages to engage you on a deep emotional level. I loved this book...and think book clubs will, too!

See our Reading Guide for A Partial History of Lost Causes.

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