Irina Ellison lives like a frequent traveler who doesn't bother to unpack her suitcase, because she's not going to be staying long, Jennifer Dubois explains in her impressive debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Irina's father died of Huntington's disease, and she's been diagnosed with the same, incurable condition. She figures she has until age 32 before the first symptoms appear and avoids close friends and lovers so no one will have to suffer the way she and her mother did caring for her father. Then she meets Jonathan while playing chess in Cambridge and breaks her own rules.
Packing up her father's things one day, she finds a letter to a Soviet chess champion, Aleksandr Bezetov, in which her dad asks him a question: When you know you're going to lose, “how do you proceed?”
Her father never got an answer, and Irina heads to Russia to track down Bezetov, now a politician running a futile campaign in Vladimir Putin's Russia. "He was the personification of order over anarchy. He was the embodiment of facing down near-certain doom with a degree of panache."
Obviously, the excuse that sends Irina to Russia is a slim one that might have even had Don Quixote scratching his head. When she looks at her life, Irina says, “I found an alarming lack of loose ends. Bezetov, in a way, felt like a loose end.” Okaaay.
But if a reader is willing to go with it, Aleksandr's story makes up for the forced nature of the plot. The novel's beginning moves between Irina in Boston and Aleksandr's first months in Moscow during the Brezhnev era, where he moves from Sakhalin in the far east to study chess as a teen and ends up falling in love with a prostitute. He falls into a dissident crowd almost by accident, acting as a delivery boy for a samizdat publication. The title comes from a list of arrested dissidents in the pamphlet called “A Partial History of Lost Causes.”
“Chess is all memory. Memory and imagination,” he tells a dissident friend, and the same could be said for writing, as well.
Dubois brings Soviet Russia to life far more vividly than modern Boston, with its freezing apartments and worms coming out of the faucet.
Eventually, the two storylines meet up at a political rally outside of Moscow, where Bezetov is running to highlight government abuses in the new Russia. “My friends, we have no chance of winning,” he tells supporters. He also assumes he'll be assassinated when the powers that be get around to it, but refuses to make the “smart play” and withdraw.
The combination of chess, politics, and life is a potent one. (Chess fans may find more than a few similarities to former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov.) The novel's opening gambit is terrific, although the plot starts to sprawl out of control near the end, when Dubois abandons chess for a political thriller.
But Dubois' characters – forging an unlikely friendship as they wryly facing down certain doom “with a degree of panache” – as well as the sheer number of really excellent sentences make up for any deficiencies of plot. And life has offered a powerful coda: Reading “A Partial History of Lost Causes” after Russia's recent “election” returned Putin to power is a timely experience indeed.