I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that began with a more aptly chosen pair of epigraphs. Lurking in the front pages of Jennifer duBois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, you’ll find these two gems:
All of us are doomed, but some are more doomed than others.
–Vladimir Nabokov, from Ada, or Ardor
And if in this wide world I die, then I’ll die from joy that I’m alive.
The novel’s action takes place at the extremes of optimism and pessimism expressed here. Everyone in this book is doomed (some more so than others), and yet the main characters never give up on trying to make something out of their inevitable descent, looking for answers to long-buried questions, looking to leave a mark, however faint, on history.
In 2006, after Irina’s father dies from Huntington’s disease, a debilitating genetic disorder which she is predisposed to develop as well, she finds an old letter he sent to the Russian chess world champion, Aleksandr Bezetov, back in the 80s. In the letter, her father asks “what is the proper way to proceed” when playing in matches “that have been lost from the start.” He never received a reply from Bezetov.
Approaching the expected age of onset for her inherited disorder, Irina decides to spend what time she has left seeking answers to her father’s question. With a half-hatched plan, as selfish as it is romantic, Irina cuts ties at home in the United States and takes off for St. Petersburg to track down a chess master turned presidential candidate.
Written with a humbling emotional intelligence, A Partial History of Lost Causes contrasts personal struggles against historical conflicts. While Irina is searching for a broader narrative for her life, something to which she can dedicate her remaining days of cognizance, Aleksandr is locked in a political prison of his own choosing. Campaigning against the “democratically” elected Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr receives regular death threats for his opposition to the autocrat’s reign. Unable to leave his apartment without a small army of bodyguards and handlers, he finds little relief from a marriage gone stale and regret as fresh as a first love.
“You haven’t lived in a place unless you have at least one major regret there,” Aleksandr’s old friend Ivan tells him in the Soviet days of their youth, in the city that was once Leningrad. It’s one of my favorite lines in the book for the way it encapsulates the issues of tragedy and ownership that link and animate both Aleksandr and Irina. Presences from their pasts haunt them as they progress into their joint future, making nostalgia for lives that never were into the enemy of the present. Personal regret, it turns out, isn’t nearly as regrettable as the effort to banish it by sacrificing the lives we are leading, while there’s still so much to do, while history still races on.
Irina and Aleksandr make an intriguing if unlikely pair of lost causes. The plot staggers somewhat from the effort required to crash their storylines together, but it recovers for a surprising and surprisingly thrilling set of closing chapters, and thematic echoes between the dual narratives remain strong throughout. For anyone interested in chess or Russian history, or prone to profound musings that border on the uncomfortably comic, this is an easy read to recommend.
If that doesn’t sound like your particular shot of vodka, you might keep your eye out for Jennifer duBois anyway. She’s a young writer making an ambitious debut, and I’m sure readers everywhere can look forward to more from her in years to come.