In Jennifer duBois’s mesmerizing and exquisitely rendered debut novel, a long-lost letter links two disparate characters, each searching for meaning against seemingly insurmountable odds.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov begins a quixotic quest. With his renowned Cold War–era tournaments behind him, Aleksandr has turned to politics, launching 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. And in the same way that he cannot abandon his aims, he cannot erase the memory of a mysterious woman he loved in his youth.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirty-year-old English lecturer Irina Ellison is on an improbable quest of her own. Certain she has inherited Huntington’s disease—the same cruel illness that ended her father’s life—she struggles with a sense of purpose. When Irina finds an old, photocopied letter her father had written to the young Aleksandr Bezetov, she makes a fateful decision. Her father had asked the Soviet chess prodigy a profound question—How does one proceed against 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.
Spanning two continents and the dramatic sweep of history, A Partial History of Lost Causes reveals the stubbornness and splendor of the human will even in the most trying times. With uncommon perception and wit, Jennifer duBois explores the power of memory, the depths of human courage, and the endurance of love.
“[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, April 2011
“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
“Terrific . . . In urgent fashion, duBois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past thirty years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)