A Partial History Of Lost Causes / Jennifer DuBois

In her debut novel, Jennifer DuBois delivers a story that mesmerizes from beginning to end.  Its two main characters are facing the possibility of a foreshortened future: one from disease, the other from an assassin’s bullet.  Irina Ellison, a thirty-year-old American, has spent more than a decade watching her father disintegrate from Huntington’s disease.  It is a progressive disease that destroys motor skills and steadily erases memory at a young age.  When genetic testing reveals she is likely to meet the same fate, her world is shaken to its core.  After her father’s death, she discovers a letter he had written to a Russian chess champion named Aleksandr Bezetov.  In it, he asks Aleksandr a question: How do you play a game when you know it is lost from the start?  No answer was ever received.  With her own life in need of an answer to that question, Irina decides to fly to Russia and seek out Aleksandr.  His life story is presented in alternating chapters.  A young chess prodigy in Communist Russia, in the 1980s he gets involved in the distribution of a dissident newsletter.  When several of his collaborators are killed in an “accident” staged by the government, Aleksandr decides to sell out and concentrate on his chess career.  Over the next decade, he becomes the world champion.  But success does not bring him the answers he seeks in life.  His career comes to an ignominious end when he is defeated by a super computer in a chess match and sulkily retires.  Bored with his rich life style and feeling guilty about his cooperation with the Communist government, in 2006 Aleksandr decides to challenge Vladimir Putin in a doomed presidential bid.  He does this even though his risk of being killed for daring to take on the authoritarian president is a strong possibility.  Lost causes are a constant theme throughout the novel, be it in chess, politics, marriage, budding relationships, or disease.  DuBois is a gifted storyteller, and she has created characters that the reader can readily identify with.  Surprisingly, the gloomy musings on mortality throughout does not bog the story down in self-pity.  I feared that, when Irina and Aleksandr finally meet and form a friendship, the plot might veer into the territory of a physical attraction between the two.  Never fear, DuBois takes a more satisfying, and interesting trajectory.  This novel is bold enough to present grand themes, delivered in very personal terms.  Without a doubt, this book should be added to your “must read” list.

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