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A Partial History of Lost Causes

3.64  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,005 Ratings  ·  450 Reviews
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. With uncommon perception and wit, duBois explores the power of memory, the depths of human courage, and the endurance of love.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bez
Hardcover, 372 pages
Published March 20th 2012 by The Dial Press
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This debut novel got under my skin and took me to surprising mental places in its tale of people facing lost causes. Irina experiences the decline of her beloved father from Huntington’s Disease and knows from a genetic test that this neurological degenerative disorder is her fate. Not long before her decline is predicted, around age thirty, she discovers a copy of a letter her father sent to a Soviet chessmaster he admired, Aleksanr Bezikov, asking his advice about the “proper way to proceed” w ...more
I definitely like this book, but its main thrust is not even alluded to in the book description! One of the two main characters is both a world chess champion and a Russian political activist. This character is Aleksandr. He hates Putin. The most interesting part about this story is that Aleksandr is modeled on a real person, Gary Kasparov! His name should have been mentioned in an author’s note. The philosophical question of how or why or even if one should try to battle against a lost cause wa ...more
Nov 30, 2011 Jill rated it really liked it
Imagine that you’re right in the prime of life – 30 years old—and discover that you are living under the shadow of Huntington’s Disease, a degenerative disorder that killed your father and will destroy your body and then your mind.

As you’re struggling to cope, you come across a letter from your now deceased father to the world chess champion Alexsandr Beztov who is now on a quixotic quest to unseat Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In it, your father asks for guidance on what to do when the enormous cert
Jun 30, 2015 Roberto rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Con che spirito possiamo giocare una partita quando sappiamo fin dall’inizio che perderemo? Che cosa si fa quando si sta affrontando una causa persa in partenza? Ha senso per noi combattere sapendo che comunque saremo sconfitti? Quali stimoli, quali obiettivi, quali storie bisogna raccontarsi per andare avanti quando la certezza della sconfitta incombe su noi stessi?

Il romanzo “Storia parziale delle cause perse” tenta di rispondere a queste domande e lo fa raccontando due storie molto diverse, m
Seamus Thompson
Jun 27, 2012 Seamus Thompson rated it liked it

How should we conduct ourselves when victory is impossible? A Partial History of Lost Causes is a moving exploration of this question on several levels. From playing an unbeatable opponent in chess, to running against an unbeatable opponent in an election, to living life in the shadow of a debilitating disease . . . Everyone's life is filled with lost causes and since, SPOILER ALERT, every one of us is going to die, our very lives are essentially lost causes. So: how should we go about losing?

Jul 29, 2012 Michelle rated it really liked it
First, a disclaimer: I know the author, as I have taken writing courses from her. She's lovely, and insightful, and possesses an enviable and incredible talent.

Her debut, at its best moments, is both heartbreaking and profoundly intelligent. Dubois distills the essence of experience in such a way that it resonates emotionally, regardless of our interest in or attachment to her characters, or even our investment in the storyline. And therein lies the problem: nothing much happens. The action does
Jul 18, 2013 Naomi rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
Loved this.

One of the many parts that caught my attention, which I then read over and over again.

'And then I told him something simpler and just as true: sometimes there are things we don't understand even about ourselves. Sometimes we run out of the time to keep trying to unravel them, and we have to sit back and content ourselves with a shrug. But I think there are some things that we'd never understand even if we had forever to wonder. There are things that - even if we had unnumbered lifet
Jan 28, 2015 Leanne rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013, own
A Partial History of Lost Causes alternates between two points of view - Aleksandr's and Irina's. Aleksandr is a chess genius extraordinaire who arrives in Leningrad to attend a chess college and gets tangled up in the opposing party's quest against the Party, eventually launching his own doomed presidential campaign a couple of decades later. Irina is a lost young woman wrestling with her own mortality - she watched her father deteriorate slowly due to Huntington's disease and a genetic test ha ...more
Nov 30, 2012 Judy rated it really liked it

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
Dec 15, 2012 Ruth rated it really liked it
The writing in this book is beautiful, assured and smooth, sometimes even skirting close to poetry in its startling use of metaphor. I loved it. The story was interesting, mixing real characters and fictional ones. With the chess player based on mostly on Gary Kasparov, and Vladimir Putin as himself, I often wondered how much was real and how much could just as well be real.

I had to suspend my disbelief in the protagonist’s rush to contact the chess player after learning she would most certainly
Apr 07, 2016 Nicole rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, kindle, nds, politics, russia
I had no idea what this book was about, I liked Cartwheel by duBois, so I added this to my list.

It starts out with a lot of chess, and I thought nope, I'm never going to make it through. It then continued on a premise I thought was a bit weak .. a question posed to the chess champ by a terminally ill character ... something to the effect of - in the face of defeat how do you keep going?

I kept on, and I'm glad I did because I was enthralled and it was hard to put down. There was a lot to the bo
May 29, 2012 Susan rated it really liked it
Shelves: arc-edition
3 stars out of 5. Knowing full well that authors often don't choose, or even have much say, in the titles of their books, I got this book partially because of the fabulous title. Whether Ms. Dubois chose this title, I can't say, but I love it.

A complex chess prodigy in brutal Russia, a woman condemned to a slow and horrible death, and their intertwining fates and that of the Soviet Union, Russia, Communism, were all spun together to make a lovely story. The characters have depth, sometimes insi
Amy Bond
I have only read good reviews about this book so far, so perhaps I am alone in my assessment, but I had a really hard time getting in to the characters. As someone who really loves the game of chess, I thought I was going to really like this book - former chess champion Alexander, is one of two main protagonists, but I had a hard time following why he was always so sad. His daughter, Irina, the main character, suffers from an insurmountable fear that someday her brain will give way to Huntington ...more
Elizabeth B
Apr 25, 2012 Elizabeth B rated it liked it
This was a bit of an uneven story for me so my review, I’m afraid, is going to end up the same. The author has a great command of the written word and uses it to its greatest strength. Description, dialogue, word choice all of it flows with wonderful effortless as you read. I did not care for the parallel story lines. Irina’s story was engrossing and involving and kept me reading. However, Aleksandre’s was slow, plodding and just generally uninteresting. It was a chore for me to read those porti ...more
Amy Warrick
Jul 08, 2013 Amy Warrick rated it really liked it

I was surprised to see that this is a debut novel; I felt in very experienced and competent hands throughout reading this book. It's beautifully written, lots of lovely adjectives and adverbs but none of them get in the way or draw undue attention to themselves.

The two storylines, that of a Russian chess prodigy, Aleksandr, and that of a young American woman, Irina, who may or may not have a hereditary disease, are told in alternating chapters. They eventually merge when Irina sets off on a qu
Dec 11, 2012 Corey rated it it was amazing
It has been a while since I liked a book as much as I liked this one. This was really a masterpiece… and Dubois’ first novel?! Unbelievable! Here’s what I loved about this book in order from most to still a lot….

1. The writing…. Wow! Example of a sentence that really spoke to me for whatever reason: “The sentiment was real enough, I suppose, but the rest was composed of gestures imitating the behavior of other people, people who had an entire future to love and fail one another.”

2. The idea… Two
Jun 04, 2012 Amy rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia
Modern-day St. Petersburg is the setting for two characters who are both doomed to fail. Irina, an American professor, knows that she will die of Huntington's disease. Alexandr, a Soviet-era chess champion, knows that he cannot beat Putin. I came close to giving this five stars--fascinating setting, perfectly imperfect characters, and one gorgeous sentence after another.

If you have any interest in Russia, this is an amazing book. St. Petersburg comes alive: Brezhnev-era dissident cafes, grungy h
Jul 01, 2013 Eric rated it liked it
When one knows one's facing a lost cause -- whether on the chess board, in one's personal life, in the political realm, etc. -- how does one proceed? So ask Dubois's characters in this ambitious, confident, and assured debut novel. The novel is at its best when it's ruminating on the injustices (cosmically speaking) of life, on "all the lofty questions about grace and catastrophe," and on the desperation and "frustrated energy" attending a lifetime truncated by illness. There are moments of pene ...more
Jul 13, 2012 Mark rated it really liked it
It is hard to process that this is the debut work of an author. She has taken what is traditionally been a heavy involved subject, life in Russia and created a dirge to the Cold War era, embracing the “interminable stretch of a Russian winter” evoking the cold and dark weather and showing life in Eastern Europe as Dostoyevsky did. Her mind pictures are dramatic, each paragraph as if a postcard into the sole of her characters.
She takes the well-worn subject of Russia’s mastery of modern-day chess
May 30, 2013 Daryl rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
How does one proceed in a lost cause? What's your strategy to keep going when you know you're going to fail? These are the central questions in Jennifer DuBois's debut novel. Two stories are interwoven: in 1980s Russia, Aleksandr Bezetov is a chess prodigy and champion. In 2006, Irina Ellison is an English professor who suffers from Huntington's disease. Irina's father, who also suffered from Huntington's, was a fan of Aleksandr and once sent him a letter. Irina jets off to Russia to talk to Ale ...more
Alice  Heiserman
Oct 09, 2012 Alice Heiserman rated it it was amazing
This was a first novel by a young author who has the sensitivity of an old soul. It is about a young woman who watches her father fall apart from Huntington's disease till he is but a shell of his former vibrant self. Knowing that it is hereditary, she has herself tested and learns that she has the genes for it. Her father taught her chess, which she enjoys and at one point early in his disease, her father writes to the soon-to-be Russian world chess champion and asks him how to live with a lost ...more
Kimberly Ann
Sep 20, 2012 Kimberly Ann rated it it was amazing
I loved this novel. It was extremely intelligently written, and it kept my interest from start to finish for various reasons. This book made two things that aren't necessarily things that interest me, Russia and chess, seem like things that I not only was interested in during the course of the novel, but things that I now want to learn more about. How much of this novel is taken from history? How much of it is fiction? These thoughts plagued me as I was reading, but in the interest of not wantin ...more
Oct 08, 2015 Jeanne rated it it was amazing
In the prime of your life, you are diagnosed with Huntington's Disease. You've seen your father die and it's not a pretty death. How do you go on?

Irina, a woman with a PhD in English, discovers her father's letter to Aleksandr Bezetov, a world champion in chess, now a candidate running against Putin for the Russian presidency. In his letter he asks,
You wouldn't be where you are if you weren't mostly a winner--a winner, that is, at those matches that have counted the most. And yet there have bee
Jun 02, 2014 Sheri rated it it was amazing
This was a very strong novel. DuBois does a great job of exploring human relationships and dealing with loss. She manages to weave together two very different characters (modern American academic and a Communist Russia chess champion) and gives the reader a great glimpse of humanity and politics.

I think my favorite parts of the novel were her quite Russian philosophical ramblings. She has a pessimistic, but pragmatic tone that reminded of me of the classics. Some of the favorite quotes address t
Jun 04, 2013 Lainie rated it it was amazing
I first want to say that I won this book on Goodread First Reads. I loved this book. It is a wonderful story about a young women that finds a letter from her dad to the world champion chess player asking some questions about life. Her dad is terminal with Huntington's disease and she also has been diagnosed with it. So she goes off to Russia to find out the answers. Heartfelt story that will stay with one long after the story is finished.
Feb 08, 2016 Jenneffer rated it really liked it
The narration is divided between a seeker and her object. Irina is a young woman whose father recently died from Huntington’s disease, and she is starting to see signs of it in herself. Not wanting to cause pain to her mother and lover, she takes off for Russia, trying to follow a trail started by her father years before his disease took over. He was a chess player, and tried to contact the world chess champion, Aleksander, but instead received a rejection letter from who he assumed was the his ...more
Feb 11, 2014 Paul rated it liked it
Cool thing about this book is that half-way through reading it, the author visited my town's public library in Kyle, Tx. I got to ask her a few questions which she answered politely and thoughtfully. She also signed my book (see pic in my photos). There were things in this book that made me like it, like Russian activists, chess, and unrequited love. Strange combination, maybe? It was a little complex stylistically, it took longer than I thought it would take to read, but I was pretty busy so so ...more
Oct 27, 2014 Shannon rated it liked it
This book was only so-so for me. Had I not been reading it for a book club, I don't think I would have pushed through and finished it. My lack of affection stemmed largely from two things: 1) the two main characters' lives were strewn with difficulty and little hope, painting a bleak landscape and 2) duBois' writing was lovely and lyrical, but there was way to much of a good thing. Someone needed to tell her to kill her darlings because I ended up skimming many descriptions from word fatigue. Ha ...more
Sep 17, 2012 Kathryn marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
This book has such an interesting cover. I am glad to have won this book and look forward to getting it and reading it!
Marilyn Johnson
Mar 10, 2016 Marilyn Johnson rated it it was amazing
First novel, gorgeously and attentively written, about a chess prodigy who survives poverty and corruption to challenge Putin and an American woman who decamps to Russia to meet him after a bleak diagnosis. Never mind the device that propels the woman to Russia, an unanswered letter from the woman's father to the chess player about how to handle a game when you're bound to lose; everything else is vivid and real enough to swallow it-- the descriptions of life on wintry Soviet streets, an intervi ...more
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Jennifer duBois is the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Jennifer earned a B.A. in political science and p ...more
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“There's an intimacy in listening to somebody's lies, I've always thought--you learn more about someone from the things they wish were true than from the things that actually are.” 21 likes
“One can become so sentimental about a person's absence, but it's impossible to be consistently sentimental in his presence - when you're confronted with the quotidian selfishness and silence that, I'm given to understand, comprise most of a life. But we were just so new.” 12 likes
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