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.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov begins a quixotic quest. With his renowned Cold War–era tournaments behind him, Aleksandr has turned to politics, launching a dissident presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. He knows he will not win—and that he is risking his life in the process—but a deeper conviction propels him forward. And in the same way that he cannot abandon his aims, he cannot erase the memory of a mysterious woman he loved in his youth.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirty-year-old English lecturer Irina Ellison is on an improbable quest of her own. Certain she has inherited Huntington’s disease—the same cruel illness that ended her father’s life—she struggles with a sense of purpose. When Irina finds an old, photocopied letter her father had written to the young Aleksandr Bezetov, she makes a fateful decision. Her father had asked the Soviet chess prodigy a profound question—How does one proceed against a lost cause?—but never received an adequate reply. Leaving everything behind, Irina travels to Russia to find Bezetov and get an answer for her father, and for herself.
Spanning two continents and the dramatic sweep of history, A Partial History of Lost Causes reveals the stubbornness and splendor of the human will even in the most trying times. With uncommon perception and wit, Jennifer duBois explores the power of memory, the depths of human courage, and the endurance of love.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Jennifer duBois is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently completing a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Originally from western Massachusetts, she lives in Northern California.
Read an Excerpt
Leningrad, Russia, 1979
When Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great gray span of the Neva. The river was a churning organ in the city's centernot its heart, surely, something more practical and less sentimental but just as necessary. The amygdala, maybe, or both kidneys. It had been six days from Okhaon a boat and then a trainand out the window he'd seen the entire country: first the teetering spires of Sakhalin's drilling rigs, as familiar to Aleksandr as his own dreams; then the abandoned green train at the port, melting into the sand ever since the war with the Japanese; then the ten thousand salmon rotting in the sun on the eastern shore, waiting for Moscow to telegram permission for their loading; then the curling stems of smoke above the villages that were impossibly far apart (he never knew he'd been living in a country this enormous all along). He saw deconsecrated cathedrals, miners with faces black and hard as their coal, great shoals of stunted grass and bleached sky. By the time he arrived at Moskovsky Vokzal, he thought he'd just about seen enough. He knew he should be grateful. The trip to Leningrad had required months of bureaucratic maneuvering, papers acquired and signed and lost, attempts and reattempts and bribes from Andronov, the man who would be Ale-k-sandr's trainer at the academy. Finally, one day, Aleksandr's entry visa had arrivedwith all the randomness of a June snowstorm or a plague of falling frogsand that was the bottom line, he often thought: not that you could be sure that nothing would work, but that you could be sure you would never, never know what would.
And on the tracksamid the screeches of braking trains and departing lovers, and the coiling smells of grease and cigarettes and cooking oil and acrid colognehe almost lost his nerve. He almost wanted to drop his luggage on the track and ride the train all the way back to the Pacific, although his only chess set was in his rucksack and he was nearly out of bribe money. As the train had pulled into the station, the man next to him announced to the entire car that today was Stalin's centenary. Everybody around looked quickly away. But here was the evidence: Sinopskaya Naberezhnaya was overrun with police, their uniforms striking red and gold against the horrible white sun. They were there to make sure nobody got too mouthy or too festive.
"Papers?" A policeman was behind him; his tone suggested that Aleksandr had already ruined his day. Aleksandr drew his hand against his eyes, and delicate grains of soot fell from his eyebrows. Just over one of the policeman's gargantuan shoulders, Aleksandr caught snatches of the green-gray Neva. Its stark and sturdy arm put the city in a headlock, he thought, or held it up like an osteoporotic backbone.
"Papers?" the policeman said again. His chinstrap was digging into his prodigious neck, and his gilt cockade flashed in the sun. Aleksandr rifled in his rucksack. When he produced his papers, the policeman appraised them with a sour look and tapped his nightstick against his thigh.
"Sakhalin?" he said. "Did you take the wrong train?"
And Aleksandr thought: It's a real possibility.
"No? Do you talk? Never mind. I don't care. Go on. I'm sure you know what day it is."
Aleksandr did know. And he was starting to decide about the Neva, too: really, it was the brain. Not the part of the brain that thinks up sonnets or show-offy chess moves; not the part that sighs sorrowfully in corners and reads Solzhenitsyn and wonders what it all can mean. It was the part that tells you to fuck, to run from things, to live, even when your better nature tells you not to.
Years later, after Aleksandr stopped playing chess and started playing politics, the city would become something altogether different. Bored women with absent eyebrows in Turkish silk bobbed in the lines outside nightclubs, pouring vodka of insane expense into the snow and laughing. Enormous billboards and neon signs made stamps of light against the sky, advertising dreams and attitudes and lifestyles of varying degrees of attainability. Leningrad became St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg became a place to make and blow loads of cashthere were businesses and ladies enough for industrious men to conquer. Eventually, chess became something different alsoonce Aleksandr became the world champion and his brilliance was remarked upon so often that it became tedious. This was how somebody with some kind of unusual beautyenchanting mismatched eyes, impossibly red hairmust feel: after a while, receiving extra credit for something so arbitrary becomes a burden. Chess was a part of him, no different from his poor posture or homely face. And chess became a humiliation and an indictment in the endafter he'd lost the title and his better moments were forgotten but his one best moment, that one best game, still hung over him, preceded him always, like a leper's bell. He was very good for a while, and then something else was better.
But when he was young, he'd had a whole life to imagine.
Stumbling out into the day from the train station felt like emerging from imprisonment only to be lined up against the wall and shot. Aleksandr made his way to his kommunalka first, picking through throngs of stern-looking people, and several small children tried to steal from him before he even made it out onto the street. He followed his careful directions to himself and kept a dumb, hyper-focused attention on his papers. The number of people here was staggering, and more people than lived in the entirety of Okha stepped on Aleksandr's feet before he made it to his new building.
The building was three stories tall and looked, from a distance, like a pile of cinders. In the packed brown snow of the front yard, a very young man stood next to an overturned trunk. The trunk's lid was -unhinged like a half-open jaw, and its contents were splattered across the yard; clearly, it had recently been thrown down the blocky staircase. On the stoop stood a gray-curled old lady in a red housecoat. From the way she was shaking her fist at the young man, Aleksandr figured she was the steward. Up close, he could see that the front doorformerly red, he thoughtwas splintering. The windows above it were welded shut.
"Excuse me," said Aleksandr. "I'm moving in today."
The steward ignored him. "Go away," she said to the young man with the trunk. "Go away and never come back."
And Aleksandr thought: Maybe it's not too late.
The steward handed Aleksandr his keys. In the kitchen, the rusty communal sink smelled of urine. An older woman in a bathrobe, her hair piled implausibly into a towel, was making toast underneath the exposed piping. On the other side of the kitchen hung decadent skeins of ladies' panty hose. On the bathroom shower curtain, bright green frogs frolicked between patches of black mold. In the hallway, a sign admonished the tenants not to hang up their underwear outside.
Aleksandr's room contained a bed bolted to the floor, a chitinous desk, and an urn-shaped samovar, presumably left over from the previous tenant. Near the ceiling, the laths were showing through the plaster. Raggedy strips of light filtered through the tiny fortochka above the bed, and Aleksandr went to lie in them. The exposed mattress was vaguely moist against his skin. He stretched out his legs. In Okha, he'd shared a bed with his two kicking little sisters, and they'd thrashed all night like dying fish.
He stared at the crescent-shaped fungal smear on the wall; he gazed through the latticework of frost on the windowpane. He tried to sleep. At the end of the week on the train, he'd been so desperate for sleep that he'd tried briefly to sleep in the bathroombalanced precariously above the hole that emptied onto the tracksuntil someone had yelled at him to get the fuck out, idiot. But in bed, he found that he missed the oceanic rumble of the train. He found that he was restless with the energy of being somewhere new when, his whole life, he'd only ever been somewhere old. He found he didn't feel like taking off his shoes yet.
He thought of the policemen down at the train station. He wondered if, out in the city somewhere, anybody was dumb enough to be celebrating.
He wrestled his map from his pocket, picked up his rucksack, and headed down the stairs. In the kitchen, he passed a woman who was using a filthy spatula to scrape the remains of an egg off a pan. She looked at Aleksandr darkly and did not speak. Outside, the cold was settling into itselfannouncing its scope, the way pain does after a moment or twoand the cold, along with the accumulated fatigue of six days on a train (two of them spent standing up), was making Aleksandr dizzy. All around him, buildings were painted blue only up to height level, and Aleksandr felt as though he were trapped in the mural of a child who had grown bored and wandered away. The wind kicked up.
Nevsky Prospekt was beautiful: the friezes and columns looked like ancient Rome, and the half-buried stores and bright orange signs and illuminated cinemas looked like the center of the very modern universe. Aleksandr recognized the rally by a beaming poster of Stalin, held high above the crowd like a grandfatherly, mustached god. The crowd was smalldesultory and damp, ringed by nervous-looking police. As he approached, Aleksandr saw that the Stalins were everywhere: out of one photo, Stalin glowered menacingly; out of another, Stalin stared with an expression of stern benevolence. Into a microphone, a man droned dully about the Battle of Stalingrad. At the edge of the crowd lurked a small group of men with skunk-striped Mohawks and plaid shirts. Aleksandr leaned against a telephone pole and tried to listen. He was exhausted, he realized, and herein this last pocket of stingy sun, with the wind breaking at the buildings behind him and the monotone buzz of military accomplishment in his earshe thought he could probably fall asleep standing up. He pulled his cap tighter over his head. His gaze faltered. His head started to fall forward.
"Enjoying the show?" A man was talking to him. Aleksandr lifted his earflaps and looked. The man was tall and thin; when he moved, it looked like his joints were locking and unlocking and painfully rearranging themselves. He was holding a glass bottle of Pepsi and wearing no gloves. Next to him stood two other men. One was notably pale, even for here, and had eyes the color of kopecks. The other was short, scarred, and writing furiously in a notebook. His mouth moved as if he was chewing something, even though Aleksandr somehow felt sure that he was not. All three of them were dressed in striped sailor shirts and quilted jackets and sodden flapped hats. The tall one wore a small silver medallion around his neck.
"Indeed," said Aleksandr. "Quite a sight."
"To think Koba would be one hundred," said the tall man. His voice was flatter than irony. "What a pity he is not here to enjoy the party."
"True," said Aleksandr. "It's evidently true."
"His reforms were truly adequate to the task of modernization, am I right?"
"Very adequate. More than adequate."
"And that mustache," said the pale one. "That mustache was quite an achievement, yes? Koba had more hair in that mustache than some men have on their entire heads."
Aleksandr turned to look at him. There was something about this one's face that made Aleksandr not want to look at it straight: a haggardness underneath the eyes that raised uncomfortable questions about life in Leningrad. "Yes," said Aleksandr, staring balefully at the ground. "An impressive feat."
The tall man looked at Aleksandr with some amusement then. When he leaned in, his voice was lower. "Did you know he was five feet four?" he said. "He was. He was five feet four and had a bad arm. They never showed it in pictures. They never showed him standing next to anybody. He's sitting in all the pictures with other dignitaries."
"I didn't know that," said Aleksandr carefully. "I was given to believe that Comrade Stalin was a man of some stature."
Aleksandr did not understand how things had gone so wrong so fast, so he turned to the short man, whose scars looked as if they might have just as easily been from fights as from some debilitating skin disease, and stuck out his hand. "Hello," he said. "I'm Aleksandr Kimovich Bezetov. I just moved here." He cast a bright smile, because in Okha, old women had always responded well to his smile. The men shot glances at one another and seemed to experience some collective facial twitching. It wasn't eye-rolling, precisely, but Aleksandr was seized by a frozen feeling that it meant something similar. He looked at the men and squinted. He tried to see in them signs of trouble, but they just looked like everyone else he'd seen on his way from the train stationunderslept and vaguely hostile. The tall one was thin, but the other two looked simultaneously chubby and wanly malnourished, as though they'd had enough to eat of only one kind of food. The shortest one crouched down to the ground, revealing the haunches of a mustelid.
"I'm Ivan Dmietrivich Bobrikov," said the thin one. "This is Nikolai Sergeyevich Chernov."
"A pleasure," said Nikolai from the ground.
"The sovok here is Mikhail Andreyevich Solovyov," said Ivan. "Where are you from?"
"Okha," said Aleksandr. "In the East."
"We know where Okha is," said Nikolai. "We're students of geography."
"Geography?" said Aleksandr politely.
"Well, history," said Ivan. He cracked his knuckles.
"Real history," said Mikhail.
"Shut up, Misha," said Ivan. He winked at Aleksandr as though they were adults looking over the head of a child. Aleksandr didn't know what would be communicated by winking back, so he didn't. "And why are you here, tovarish?" said Ivan.
In the center of the crowd, a man was offering a tender eulogy for Stalin. His voice buckled and his nose turned bright red with emotion.
"To play chess," said Aleksandr. "I have a place at the academy. I'm working with Andronov."
"Oh yes? And what is a boy from Okha doing at the academy with Andronov?"
Aleksandr scratched his nose. "I was in his correspondence course first."
"I see," said Ivan. "You have a favorite player, then? You like Spassky?"
"He's all right. He let himself be psychologically outmaneuvered by Fischer, though, in '72. All the nonsense with the money and the late arrival."
"That match was rigged by the Americans, though, am I right? They were controlling Spassky via chemical and electronic devices, yes?"
What People are Saying About This
“[An] astonishingly beautiful and brainy debut novel . . . Against the backdrop of Russia’s recent political past, duBois conjures the briefly intersecting lives of two intriguingly complex strangers—prickly, introspective, and achingly lonely—who are nevertheless kindred spirits. Her prose is both apt and strikingly original . . . So how do we proceed when defeat is inevitable? The stunning novel suggests an answer: We just do. Perseverance, it seems, is its own kind of victory.” —O: The Oprah Magazine
"Gorgeous . . . DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. She has an equal grasp of politics and history, the emotional nuances of her complex characters, and the intricacies of chess. Irina and Aleksandr are difficult people, prickly and formidable, but they’re also sympathetic and flawed, vulnerable and human. DuBois’ evocations of Russia are lush, and her swashbuckling descriptions, whether of chess games, a doomed political campaign, or the anticipation of death, are moving yet startlingly funny—full of bravado, insight, and clarity. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a thrilling debut by a young writer who evidently shares the uncanny brilliance of her protagonists.” —Kate Christensen, Elle
"Jennifer duBois's first novel is a meticulously constructed tale of intertwining destinies. Irina, a young American facing an unbearable diagnosis, and Aleksandr, a former Soviet chess champion turned dissident politician, are brought together by a long-forgotten letter that asks how to carry on with a lost cause. Ranging from Massachusetts to Moscow and covering several decades, A Partial History of Lost Causes abounds and fascinates with dark wit and poignant insight, chess and politics, frozen rivers and neon nightclubs.” —Maggie Shipstead, Salon
“Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination. Jennifer duBois is too young to be this talented. I wish I were her.”—Gary Shteyngart
“An amazing achievement—a braiding of historical, political, and personal, each strand illuminating the other. Wonderful characters, elusive glimpses of wisdom, and a gripping story that accelerates to just the right ending.”—Arthur Phillips
“Thrilling, thoughtful, strange, gorgeous, political, and deeply personal, Jennifer duBois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes is a terrific debut novel. In prose both brainy and beautiful, she follows her characters as they struggle to save each other. This is a book to get lost in.”—Elizabeth McCracken
“By what exquisite strategy did duBois settle on this championship permutation of literary moves? Her debut is a chess mystery with political, historical, philosophical, and emotional heft, a paean to the game and the humans who play it. DuBois probes questions of identity, death, art, and love with a piercing intelligence and a questing heart.”—Heidi Julavits
“Terrific . . . In urgent fashion, duBois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past thirty years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.”—Publishers Weekly
Reading Group Guide
1. Are Irina’s actions ultimately courageous or cowardly? Do you see her ending as happy?
2. In some ways, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s situations are similar—and in many ways, they are very different. What do you think brings Aleksandr and Irina together as friends? What do you think they learn from each other?
3. The character of Misha challenges Aleksandr’s vision of Russia’s democratic future. Is there any merit to his argument about the pragmatism of slower change? How do recent events in the Arab world speak to this argument?
4. Irina treasures her intellect, and fears that she will not be herself anymore once she begins to lose it. What do you think makes you “you”? Do you feel there’s some essential quality that makes you who you are—and that, if you lost it, you wouldn’t be the same person?
5. Why are Aleksandr’s sections written in third person, while Irina’s sections are written in first? How does this decision inform your reaction to the book? Did you find you connected more with either Irina or Aleksandr?
6. What do you think would have become of Ivan if he’d lived?
7. Irina can often be sardonic and fatalistic. Are there any examples of her behaving in ways that subvert this cynical pose?
8. Beyond Aleksandr’s political career and Irina’s disease, do you see other lost causes in the book? Have you been faced with a lost cause in your own life, and how did you react to it?
9. How does chess work as a metaphor in the book? Is the structure of the game itself mirrored in the structure of the book?
10. Do you think that Aleksandr’s chess brilliance ultimately made him a better or worse person?
11. What role does Irina play in the reunion between Elizabeta and Aleksandr? Do you that they might have reconnected if Irina had never come to Russia?
12. After Misha’s letter to the editor is published, Boris decides to abandon Aleksandr’s campaign, while Viktor decides to go with Irina to Perm. If you were Boris or Viktor, what decision do you think you would have made
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Irina Ellison has spent most of her life watching her father die, standing by as Huntington's destroyed first his body, and then his mind. His demise is a map of what her own will be; her own diagnosis gives her the certainty that she will one day lose control of her body and mind as certainly as he did, though she can only guess when it will begin. First a twitch of an arm, then a loss of control, then a loss of memory, of self, of personality. Her entire life becomes a question she seems incapable of answering: how should she live, if she knows it is all for naught? "My major character flaw," she writes, "is an inability to invest in lost causes. When you are the lost cause, this makes for a lonely life." A Partial History of Lost Causes is a novel of love and loss, politics and games, strategies and defeats, and all of the little moments that make up a life before a life is swept away by a death. It is a reminder to appreciate what we have, to value what we've had, and to look forward to what is yet to come. It is the kind of novel you want to rush through, desperate to find out what happens, but also the kind you want to read carefully, to savor, to understand. It is also, incidentally, the best book I've read all year.
Much of the writing is lovely, but, overall, the story became fairly tedious and depressing reading with main characters who often elicit more irritation than sympathy or admiration. Irina and Aleksandr's resignation to their respective fates and subsequent self-absorption and sometimes self-destructive actions resulted in the creation of two characters whom few people would want to actually meet. I believe the author demonstrated a more deft hand with prose, than with the development of storyline and character development.
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 insight, and sometimes an amazing lack of insight.Some of the writing was lyrical, beautiful, as were some of the metaphors. Sometimes the writing and the metaphors seemed forced, too studied. The storyline was interesting and engaging, but moved too slowly in places. Irina bemoaning her genetic fate got old even though it was integral to the story.I like that the author was not afraid to write above the lowest common denominator, included a couple of words I didn't know, but the book wasn't written as though the author was trying to show off all the big words she knows.In the end, although I enjoyed much of the story, I came away from it feeling ultimately just a little dissatisfied.
I received the book through the Early Reviewers program. I thought the language in the first chapter seemed like it was a poor translation of a foreign book, and I dreaded reading the whole thing. I decided I should stick with it for at least 50 pages. To my surprise, the second chapter was a complete contrast; it was beautifully written! I ended up very much enjoying the book. It¿s unique, thought-provoking and educational.I thought the author did a great job imagining a young woman anticipating a terminal illness. I also thought her depiction of life in Russia was well-done. I would highly recommend the book and think it would be a good choice for book discussion groups.
A terminal diagnosis, the looming end to a relationship, those moments before the buzzer when a team is too far down to come back, a futile gesture, doggedly continuing a lost cause. How does a person go on in the face of certain defeat? That is the central question swirling throughout the narrative in DuBois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes.It is 1979 and young chess prodigy Aleksandr Bezetov moves to Leningrad starting to win his way ever closer to being declared the world chess champion even as he unintentionally joins a small dissident political group devoted to exposing the abuses of the Communist government. He treads a thin line between being worthy of adulation and of being arrested (or worse) as far as the government is concerned.Twenty-five years later, American Irina Ellison, who once watched Bezetov's chess matches on tv with her father, is looking for answers to how she should live her life. She watched her vibrant, intelligent father die a slow and horrifying death due to Huntington's Disease and she knows that she carries the same genetic ticking time bomb. She hasn't allowed herself to develop any close relationships with others, dreading the day she first manifests the jerking characteristic of the disease.And then Irina finds the carbon of a letter from her father addressed to Bezetov at the height of his career asking the improbable question of how to continue to play a game in the face of certain defeat. There is a non-answer from an unknown woman but no acknowledgement of the letter from Bezetov and so Irina decides that she is going to go to Russia and find the answer herself, even if it will be difficult to secure a meeting with Bezetov, who is now running a presidential campaign in opposition to Putin, having lost his chess title to IBM's computer many years prior.As these two troubled and lost souls swirl around each other, with Irina ultimately coming to work for Bezetov's campaign, there is a continual exploration of the necessity and desirability of pursuing lost causes. Irina tells her own story in first person while Aleksandr's tale is told in the third person omniscient. This makes the story slightly more Irina's than Aleksandr's. Both characters though are very introspective and suffer from disappointment. Irina's manifests itself as a sort of aimlessness while Aleksandr's comes out as a dogged need to thrust himself into the political spotlight no matter that he fully expects to lose the election and perhaps be assassinated as well. Both characters, despite their obvious parallels, are very different, almost equal and opposite sides of the coin of life. How they each choose to move forward despite the fact that the endgame will certainly not be theirs is fascinating to watch.The narrative itself is slightly depressing but the writing is gorgeous. DuBois has drawn a cold, unforgiving, and secretive place in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, imbuing it with an appropriate sense of tired menace. Setting here accurately reflects the internal struggles of the trapped characters. And while Aleksandr and Irina may have seperately found the way to persevere in the face of truly insurmountable odds, they are joyless in their discoveries. Perhaps that, ultimately, is the question that Irina should have asked: How to go on in the face of certain defeat but to still find happiness or at least satisfaction in the game. DuBois is a very talented writer and the book is one that will haunt me for some time but it definitely exudes an air of gloom, greyness, and resignation.
A Partial History of Lost Causes is the story of one woman's fight against Huntington's and her efforts to avenge her deceased father's memory by tracking down a Russian chess player who had once failed to respond to a fan letter. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Irina goes to Russia to meet Aleksandr, the famed Russian Chess Champion, to get answers to life's most difficult question: how do you proceed when facing a lost cause? Aleksandr struggles with this question himself, faced with looking back on a life of regrets and missed opportunities as he is campaigning for president of Russia.This book was impossible to put down. Jennifer DuBois's writing is beautiful to the point of possessing an almost magical ability to transport the reader into Russian culture and the streets of Leningrad/Petersberg. Nearly every other sentence made me stop and wonder at her ability to write the absolute truth in just a few words. The characters are impeccably realistic, strong, fierce individuals who are facing tough decisions. And the depiction of Russia from 1979 to 2006 is brilliantly pessimistic. The story of Irina and Aleksandr is full of life and death, hope, optimism, and overcoming the odds not through miracles but through silent acts of goodwill and mysterious political maneuvers. But in the end, this story is not about Huntington's or Russian politics, or even chess, it is about how to keep going when all seems lost and how two people somehow found in each other exactly what they never knew they needed.
In 2006, Irina, a young American professor facing the imminent onset of hereditary Huntington¿s disease, says goodbye to all she knows and travels to Russia to ask a question of Aleksandr Bezetov, a middle-aged chess champion and dissident challenging Putin in an upcoming election. The question concerns how one proceeds in the face of certain defeat, and years earlier her father, as his own disease was upon him, wrote to ask this of a much younger Bezetov. Bezetov never answered the letter, and Irina sees her quest as a means of giving some focus and meaning to her life. She also needs time to think about how to handle her certain decline: specifically, how to decide when to end its progression so she does not die as her father did, with mind and body long depleted. Irina¿s narrative begins in 2006 and Bezetov¿s in 1979, and they are told in alternating chapters which come closer in time as the book proceeds.At first it seems Aleksandr¿s tale will be the more memorable of the two, with its marvelous description of life in the late Soviet era and the awakening of his political consciousness, and with Irina¿s simply a framework for his story. But Irina¿s question, and her musings about life and death even as she struggles to make sense of modern Russia, become extremely meaningful for both characters and for the reader. Irina and Alexsandr are delineated fully, and I came away feeling I knew them both very well. Irina¿s search and Alexsandr¿s answer move them towards their individual destinies, and the story resolves with a wholeness which feels perfect. Very, very highly recommended.
I absolutely loved this debut from Jennifer Dubois that I received from the Early Reviewer's program at Library Thing. It is my ideal book - a book in which I learn something real about another culture or country, all while I'm being entertained with a great fictional story. In this case, I learned a lot about Russian politics and culture as Irina, the main character, goes in search of the great chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov. The question at the heart of the book: How should one proceed when faced with a lost cause? A question which applies equally to chess, Russian politics and personal lives. I hope to hear a lot more from this young author!
When I received this book and I read the synopsis I could not for the life of me remember why I decided to review it. It was so very different from what I usually read. As I started to read I was almost immediately enthralled and suddenly very happy I had chosen to read the book. Not that it is a happy book, not by any means, but Ms. duBois has a writing style that just pulls you in and almost refuses to let you out.Irina Ellison grows up in the shadow of a father dying by inches from Huntingdon's disease. She learns at a very early age that she has inherited the gene for the disease and lives her life with the foreknowledge of her death. She foregoes attachments both with friends and lovers knowing how her life with play out. After her father dies she finds a letter he wrote to Chess World Champion Aleksandr Bezetov asking a question that was never answered. On a whim Irina travels to Russia to get the answer her father never received. Aleksandr is running a hopeless campaign for president against Putin at the time of her arrival and living under a cloud of death himself.Will she find her answer? Read the book. You won't be disappointed. It's like no other book I have ever read. Not easy, not simple, and nothing is clear cut, but the writing - the writing is just plain magical. Even when dealing with the worst that life has to offer. Irina is cranky, miserable and very hard to like and to be honest I didn't like her at all. It's rare for me to enjoy a book when I can't like the main character but I truly found it hard to put this one down. Aleksandr was no peach either. An arrogant, unpleasant teenager who didn't improve with age. And yet, the prose sings. It is one of those books that I know will be even better on a second read.
This book was good in that it was so different from the usual plot of novels. I will not go into a summary of the story. Many others will do that for me. I am not a chess person. I never had any desire to learn the game, so I was a bit lost with the chess metaphors. I thought the parallel American storyline was interesting, but didn't feel it gel with the chess player's story. The author made a good attempt at bringing these two stories together, but it seemed like she was reaching a bit. I am a follower of Russian history, and felt this book gave me a good idea of the more current Russia. It left me with a sad, desolate feeling that the Russians have always struggled and will continue to forever. It seems they never get a break. The government is and always will be corrupt. So, for me, I liked the book more from the current political happenings in Russia than the chess storyline or even the American woman.