What compels us to cling to hope in hopeless circumstances? That’s the intriguing question first-time novelist Jennifer duBois explores in a story that evocatively connects two characters whose biographies give little hint of the way their destinies ultimately merge.
The novel takes its title from the name of a hand-produced dissident journal teenager Aleksander Bezetov distributes furtively in the city still known as Leningrad, where he arrives in 1979 as an aspiring chess prodigy. After one of his comrades is killed by Communist operatives, he makes his peace with the regime and begins a meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the chess world, with all the perquisites and soul-destroying compromises that choice entails.
A quarter-century later Irina Ellison, a young woman with a Ph.D. in comparative literature, abandons her life in Boston and flees to Russia. She’s been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, the same affliction that slowly and painfully killed her father, with whom she had watched many of Aleksander’s matches. Before she begins to feel its effects, Irina seeks out Aleksander to answer a question about facing loss gracefully that her father once asked him in an unanswered letter.
Irina and Aleksander finally encounter each other in 2006, in the midst of Aleksander’s quixotic electoral campaign to unseat Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Irina’s grim persistence eventually leads her to Aleksander’s door, where the two are drawn together by their shared sense of desperation.
In a novel that conjures the Russian literary tradition, duBois weaves an intricate web of relationships among characters forced to confront difficult existential choices. Irina, with her “inability to invest in lost causes,” struggles with the private suffering brought on by the knowledge that her life will be truncated by disease, while Aleksander fights against what seems an equally inevitable public destiny.
Though at times she overreaches for an arresting metaphor, duBois does an admirable job of portraying the death rattle of Communism and the birth of a nominally democratic but persistently corrupt society. She vividly captures the spirit of St. Petersburg and Moscow, not least the cloud of paranoia that hovers over both the old and new Russian worlds. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a deeply thoughtful novel, a pensive, multilayered look at a culture in transition and the lives of the two complex, memorable characters at its core.