A Partial History of Lost Causes
Jennifer duBois, 2012
In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov begins a quixotic quest: He launches a dissident presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. He knows he will not win—and that he is risking his life in the process—but a deeper conviction propels him forward.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirty-year-old English lecturer Irina Ellison struggles for a sense of purpose. Irina is certain she has inherited Huntington’s disease—the same cruel illness that ended her father’s life. When Irina finds an old, photocopied letter her father wrote to the young Aleksandr Bezetov, she makes a fateful decision. Her father asked the chess prodigy a profound question—How does one proceed in a lost cause?—but never received an adequate reply. Leaving everything behind, Irina travels to Russia to find Bezetov and get an answer for her father, and for herself. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Northampton, Massachusetts, USA
• Education—B.A., Tufts Univeristy;
M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop
• Currently—lives in Texas
Jennifer duBois' writing has appeared in Playboy, The Wall Street Journal, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The Florida Review, The Northwest Review, ZYZZYVA, FiveChapters and elsewhere. Her short story “Wolf” was listed as a Notable Story in Best American Short Stories 2012, and her short story “A Partial History of Lost Causes,” excerpted from her novel, was one of Narrative’s Top Five Stories of 2011-2012. She completed a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University-San Marcos. (From the author's website.)
Dubois' first book, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was published in 2012; in 2013, she published Cartwheel.
A real page-turner.... A psychological thriller of great nuance and complexity.
Dallas Morning News
DuBois is precise and unsentimental.... She moves with a magician’s control between points of view, continents, histories, and sympathies.
The New Yorker
[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
In Dubois’s terrific debut, Aleksandr Bezetov arrives in Leningrad to study chess on the day of Stalin’s centenary celebration in 1979 and meets two men who publish a dissident journal called A Partial History of Lost Causes. In Cambridge, Mass. in 2006, 30-year-old university lecturer Irina Ellison lives with a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary degenerative illness that often leads to early death. After her Russophile father dies, Irina finds an unanswered letter he wrote after learning of his illness to Aleksandr asking how the chess champion is ever able to continue a game he knows he won’t win. On impulse, Irena leaves her lover and her Cambridge life and goes to Russia to track down the retired chess champion and have him answer the question in person, only to find out that Aleksandr has taken up the biggest lost cause of all: running against Vladimir Putin for president of Russia. Moving between Aleksandr’s past and Irina’s present journey of self-discovery, the two stories eventually come together as Irina joins Aleksandr’s quixotic political campaign and becomes swept up in his dangerous attempt to expose Putin. In time, these unlikeliest of allies form a touching bond based on Irina’s diagnosis and the constant threats against Aleksandr’s life. In urgent fashion, Dubois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past 30 years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship
Thirty-year-old lecturer Irina Ellison knows that she possesses the genetic markers that point to early-onset Huntington's disease. Having watched her father die of the condition, Irina organizes her life to minimize its impact. She intends to leave no loose ends behind her, and that includes tying up one of her late father's unanswered letters to Soviet-era chess champion-turned-politician Aleksandr Bezetov. We move back and forth from Aleksandr's early chess career and introduction to the political underground in 1980s Leningrad to Irina's contemporary efforts to locate him and ask the question her father had posed to him: How does one proceed against a lost cause? As Bezetov campaigns against an unbeatable Vladimir Putin, the question takes on fresh relevance for all. Verdict: In her promising debut, Stanford Fellow and playwright duBois presents a tender tale, told with humor and honesty. An engrossing read with a historical twist and a dash of politics; point this one out to any contemporary fiction fan. —Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll.-Northeast, TX
He's a Russian chess champion and would-be President; she's an American facing terminal illness. Losing gracefully is a challenge for them both in this mildly piquant debut. A chess prodigy from a humble home, Aleksandr Bezetov enrolls in Leningrad's chess academy in 1979. The lonely young man falls in with three dissidents who put out a journal documenting arrests of fellow activists, and he distributes it, while racking up ever more chess victories. Then one of his companions is killed in an "accident." The Party tells Aleksandr he can represent his country if he ends his agitprop; he does so with a clear conscience and wins the World Championship while still in his early 20s.... Meanwhile in Cambridge, Mass.,...Irina Ellison is the daughter of a music professor and chess enthusiast with Huntington's. He dies after 20 years of brain and body disintegration. The odds of Irina beating this inherited disease are only 30 percent. While still lucid, her father had written to Akeksandr, seeking advice on how to make a "graceful exit.".... Now 30, she is determined to spare her loved ones...the agony of watching her unravel. The obvious answer, suicide, is referenced but not fully considered. No, she will fly the coop, and maybe extract some ultimate wisdom from Aleksandr. Once in Russia, she admits "my quest was absurd." She's right, of course. Dubois masks the absurdity by deflecting our attention to Aleksandr's story.... By now it's 2006, and he's heading up a coalition of anti-Putin forces, even though it's a lost cause fighting a ruthless regime. He gives Irina a job, but (surprise!) no exit strategy. Dubois' impressive mastery of her Russian material makes one hopeful for a more credible story line next time around.
1. Are Irina’s actions ultimately courageous or cowardly? Do you see her ending as happy?
2. In some ways, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s situations are similar—and in many ways, they are very different. What do you think brings Aleksandr and Irina together as friends? What do you think they learn from each other?
3. The character of Misha challenges Aleksandr’s vision of Russia’s democratic future. Is there any merit to his argument about the pragmatism of slower change? How do recent events in the Arab world speak to this argument?
4. Irina treasures her intellect, and fears that she will not be herself anymore once she begins to lose it. What do you think makes you “you”? Do you feel there’s some essential quality that makes you who you are—and that, if you lost it, you wouldn’t be the same person?
5. Why are Aleksandr’s sections written in third person, while Irina’s sections are written in first? How does this decision inform your reaction to the book? Did you find you connected more with either Irina or Aleksandr?
6. What do you think would have become of Ivan if he’d lived?
7. Irina can often be sardonic and fatalistic. Are there any examples of her behaving in ways that subvert this cynical pose?
8. Beyond Aleksandr’s political career and Irina’s disease, do you see other lost causes in the book? Have you been faced with a lost cause in your own life, and how did you react to it?
9. How does chess work as a metaphor in the book? Is the structure of the game itself mirrored in the structure of the book?
10. Do you think that Aleksandr’s chess brilliance ultimately made him a better or worse person?
11. What role does Irina play in the reunion between Elizabeta and Aleksandr? Do you that they might have reconnected if Irina had never come to Russia?
12. After Misha’s letter to the editor is published, Boris decides to abandon Aleksandr’s campaign, while Viktor decides to go with Irina to Perm. If you were Boris or Viktor, what decision do you think you would have made?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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