A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois
The Dial Press
Publication date: March 20, 2012
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Irina Ellison, one of the main characters in A Partial History of Lost Causes, sees her father decline from Huntington’s disease when she’s a teenager, and, when she’s a college student, she’s diagnosed with the affliction as well. The actions of this book are put in motion by Irina’s knowledge that she will start to decline most likely by the time she’s 32. Irina’s father loved chess, first realized he was unwell when his young daughter beat him at chess, and wrote a letter to chess world champion Aleksandr Bezetov asking him how to cope with certain doom. After her father dies and as she nears her thirty-second birthday, Irina travels to Russia to meet her dad’s chess hero and find out the answer to her father’s question.
Irina finds Bezetov running as an opposition party candidate for president. The chapters alternate between Irina and Aleksandr, capturing both of their histories as young people: Irina in college and graduate school, Aleksandr moving from eastern Russia to Leningrad to enroll in a chess academy and becoming world champion. Aleksandr’s life is more overtly political than Irina’s: he was a dissident during Soviet times and he’s highly critical of Putin’s regime. She is a college lecturer during her twenties.
The book works because duBois’s writing is quite vivid: Aleksandr’s train journey to Leningrad, his small room in a kommunalka, his lonely life in Leningrad are all memorable scenes and settings. DuBois is also good at capturing the emotional life of Irina, who was diagnosed at such a young age and watched her father being robbed of his motor skills and the rest of his brain during his decline from Huntington’s. I cut her slack with her wild, self-absorbed reactions to her life because Huntington’s is such a horrible disease. Facing mortality when your college-aged, never mind facing a disease as debilitating as Huntington’s, is a horrible situation.
The stakes are high for both characters in this book: Irina knows she will decline soon and will not be able to live as she had before. Aleksandr is in danger because he’s running for president for the opposition party. He keeps a box full of death threats he’s received. His life becomes more and more managed in order to avoid assassination. Their lives intersect as Irina travels to Russia, and they recognize themselves in each other. She asks him how he lives with doom, which is the question her father asked him in his letter to him.
The book deals with messy characters with messy lives living in quite difficult circumstances. It's about the game of chess and being a world chess champion. It's about political life in Russia in the last half-century. It's a book about figuring out what sort of life to live. It's a book about big ideas.