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Reviewed by Nina Longfield
Jennifer DuBois’ A Partial History of Lost Causes begins in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) during the waning days of the Soviet Union. We meet Aleksandr, a rising chess prodigy. Aleksandr, from a small village on the Pacific edge of the Soviet Union, is thrust into the cold city and the changes enveloping the country.
Jump ahead almost thirty years to Cambridge, Massachusetts and meet Irina, a young woman who feels she is a lost cause. Irina lost her father to the slow degeneration of Huntington’s disease. Irina is intelligent, has a PhD in Literature, and should be embracing the possibilities of life. Instead, she is convinced that she is carrying the genetic code of Huntington’s and has deemed herself a lost cause.
With her father’s passing, Irina comes across a letter her father once wrote to Aleksandr. Her father, a fan of Aleksandr’s chess prowess, wrote the letter regarding a chess match and how Aleksandr triumphed despite the presumed certainty of defeat. The letter was never answered. Aleksandr is now following his own lost cause as the unexpected politician contesting Putin’s reign. Desperate for an answer to her father’s question, Irina travels to Moscow in search of Aleksandr.
A Partial History of Lost Causes is beautiful and sad. DuBois’ writing is fluid. With little effort, she seems to capture the mood of her characters and their setting. The bleakness of Leningrad in winter comes through in shivering detail. It is the perfect setting for Irina’s search for the elusive Aleksandr and her answer. In a city that comes to embody Irina’s idea of lost causes, she begins to understand that she may be more than the sum of her genetics.
DuBois’ characters are well written. In spite of the prevalent sadness throughout A Partial History of Lost Causes, I still had hope for Irina’s and Aleksandr’s individual quests. Aleksandr comes across as bleak as the Russian winters that seem to saturate his life, yet there is a sardonic humor that softens and makes him likeable. Irina is pragmatic, resourceful and, under layers of surrender, she is determined. She hasn’t completely given in to the disease that could, someday, erode her mind. This underlying resolve to find an answer to lost causes compelled me to read in an attempt to understand Irina.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by The Dial Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.