“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.”
Thoughts: When the chance of success becomes impossible, what do you do? The easy answer, the answer taught to children everywhere, is to keep going and continuing trying. What happens when the impossible success is a suddenly brief mortality? Such is the question facing Irina Ellison in A Partial History of Lost Causes as she struggles to maintain interest in a life doomed due to genetics.
There are several issues a reader may find with the overall premise of the novel. For one, while both Aleksandr and Irina face tremendous odds, the idea of comparing both of their causes to one another is somewhat insolent. Aleksandr may be facing a losing political battle, and he may be placing himself in mortal danger; however, his is a quest that he could stop at any point in time. He can always stop pushing against the Putin regime, thereby greatly reducing, if not eliminating, his risk of assassination. Irina does not have the same options. She cannot walk away from her genes in hopes they will not trigger her inherited disease; she cannot call a timeout on time’s march towards her ultimate demise. Hers is the ultimate lost cause, whereas Aleksandr’s cause is as much whim as it is the desire of an elderly man seeking reparations with his conscience for transgressions made when younger.
Another issue is the idea that Irina would seek out a chess champion for answers regarding proceeding against a lost cause. Even those with rudimentary chess knowledge understands that in chess, when one realizes that the game is lost, withdrawing is a perfectly acceptable option versus continuing an unwinnable game. Is prematurely ending a life that is already slated for an early demise an appropriate option? Is it really a choice to make available to those seeking answers to an unanswerable question? With such a weighty topic, Aleksandr’s initial answer is too glib for comfort. While it is not his entire answer, it still continues to rankle a reader though for its casualness as a response to one of life’s toughest questions.
Irina’s story is fascinating, and Aleksandr’s own past is mesmerizing with its intimate look at Cold War Russia – the paranoia as well as the sense of futility that permeated the landscape. The individual narratives enmesh the reader in their specific struggles, dreams, fears, and actions. However, when the two stories merge, the novel quickly fizzles. There is something about the unification of two desperate causes, of two people seeking resolution where none might exist, that is too gloomy for overall enjoyment. Especially when compared to his initial arrival to Petersburg, Aleksandr’s adult life has a dream-like quality that prevents a reader from completely sympathizing with him, whereas Irina’s own desperation is also a bit of a turnoff. She is a lot more enjoyable and empathetic when she is still stateside, trying to figure out what to do with her few close relationships. The idea of running away from loved ones is a lot like Aleksandr’s answer to her father’s question – it is too simplistic an answer for such a grave issue.
Keep in mind that one is not going to read Ms. Dubois’ debut novel looking for happy endings, nor should one read it as escapism. A Partial History of Lost Causes is not necessarily meant to inspire or to resolve similar issues for readers. In many ways, the novel mirrors the main theme – there is no easy solution to impossible situations. If anything, it is a bleak reminder that life is not a fairy tale where everyone gets their happy ending. This is not a novel for those who struggle with depression or for someone looking for a fun beach read.
That being said, there is something unnervingly compelling about Irina’s quest for answers and Aleksandr’s search for absolution. Ms. Dubois adeptly depicts their despair, their desperation, their drive, and their utter disdain with aplomb. It might not be the cheeriest of subject matters, but the attention to detail, the character introspection, and the character interactions engross a reader, even when a reader hopes, or even needs, to keep an emotional distance. Irina and Aleksandr drive a reader to question their own reactions to and resolutions for a lost cause. At the end of it all, driving readers to do their own soul searching makes for worthwhile reading.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to LibraryThing Early Readers Program for my review copy!