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A Partial History of Lost Causes

3.65 of 5 stars 3.65  ·  rating details  ·  1,633 ratings  ·  402 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, 384 pages
Published March 20th 2012 by The Dial Press
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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
Seamus Thompson

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?

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

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
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
3 ½ 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 ins
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
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
Amy Warrick

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
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 4 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
This was my favorite book of 2012, and I just realized I never entered it. It's difficult to characterize this book. The plot is twisty, but it's not a mystery. The main character is ill, but it's not just about that, either. The writing is excellent; I underlined so many awesome lines and phrases. Example: "His quasi-British accent made him sound like he was always on the brink of apology. His expression made him look like a person who had never apologized in his entire life." And: "He shouldn' ...more
I received this book for free as a Good Reads First Reads book.

I am still debating whether it's 3 or 4 stars in my mind.

I really liked this book for many reasons. I like the underlying chess prodigy story lines. I like that it's slightly historical and slightly political. It inspired me to look into some Russian non-fiction.

I like the two separate story lines of Irina and Aleksander. And I love when they collide. The characters are easy to love and get to know. And you truly care what happens
The title refers to a piece of fictionalized samizdat that turns up briefly in the young life of Russian chess master Alexandr Bezetov, one of two leading characters in this first novel from Jennifer Dubois. While honing his game at a chess academy circa 1979, Bezetov falls in with a group of St. Petersburg human-rights dissidents who dessiminate something they refer to as 'A Partial History of Lost Causes'. They explain to Alexandr that it's a leftish journal with an erratic publishing schedule ...more
After her father dies of Huntington's disease, Irina (also afflicted with the genes that make Huntington's a certainty for her, as well) discovers a copy of a letter he'd written many years before to Aleksandr Bezetov, then the reigning world chess champion. A great fan of Aleksandr's, Irina's father posed to him the question: How does one go on in the face of certain loss? Aleksandr never replied.

Irina embarks on a quest. She travels to Russia in search of Aleksandr Bezetov and the answers to h
I received a review copy of this book from Random House/Goodreads. Thanks!

Sometimes I pick up a book with no particular expectations of it, and it knocks me on my butt. I love it when that happens. I love it that reading can be so unpredictable and mind opening. I am happily surprised when an author engages me to the extent that I walk around thinking about the book when I can’t actively read it. I know then that I have something special. Sometimes I walk around with those books, bumping into th
Jennifer Dubois weaves together the stories of her two main characters, in alternating chapters, timelines and points of view. Through the eyes of Alexandr, a chess prodigy and future world champion, we see the hardships, compromises and hypocrisies of life in the last decades of the Soviet Union.

More than twenty years later, Irina, whose father has recently died of Huntington's disease, discovers that he wrote a letter to Alexandr, asking a simple question: "What is the right way to approach a
Audra (Unabridged Chick)
Please forgive me while I have a brief spaz out.



I'm going to be struggling a bit to provide a useful review (sorry), partially because this plot is so layered and interesting, and partially because it was so great I'm really just shaking the book emphatically at the screen as if that would convey it's awesomeness.

Gary Shteyngart blurbs the book on the cover, saying among other things: "I wish I were her." To that I say: true story. I envy duBo
I don’t normally hang in with a book, as intriguing and well written as this one is, until page 200 to get my mind blown. But that is what happened. Here are a couple of excerpts. From pg 194. Irina is meeting with the world champion chess player who is running for president of russia’s aide de camp, viktor. She is trying to get to meet aleksandr bezetov the chess player to “find the meaning to life” or in her case, death.

“With a flick of his finger, Viktor ordered us another round. He sat back
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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.” 19 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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