Book Review: A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer Dubois

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."

And so it is not so surprising, really, that when her father finally dies, she abandons what little life she has in Massachusetts--a job as a lecturer, a mother, a chess opponent in the park, a budding romance--in pursuit of an answer to the question, one that she finds her father addressed, once upon a time, to the world's most famous chess player: the Russian Aleksandr Bezetov.

Aleksandr and Irina are linked by nothing more than the unanswered letter her father once penned, but Jennifer duBois weaves their stories together with a stunning delicacy that is all the more apparent after the last page turns; herein lies the greatest power of duBois' debut novel. A Partial History of Lost Causes is brilliant in its subtleties, paired neatly with a heavy hand of philosophical musings on the nature of death--and therefore life. What makes us who we are? And if the person we are is destined to disappear, what point is there? 
"Personality is continuity. Personality is the myth of continuity. And the person is lost when nothing can be old to him, when nothing can be familiar, when all parallels, all symbols, all analogs, are gone; when the world is perpetually stunning; when we are newborns again, at last."
Most importantly, however, there is the question Irina and her father and the strange chess player she comes to befriend are all asking: How do I proceed if I know it is a lost cause? 
"You wouldn't be where you are if you weren't mostly a winner... And yet there have been games, matches, tournaments that you've lost. And among these, surely, are games, matches, tournaments that you've known all along you were losing... When you find yourself playing in such a game or a tournament, what is the proper way to proceed? What story do you tell yourself when that enormous certainty is upon you and you scrape up against the edges of your own self?"
This is the question that ties together all of the otherwise disparate threads in A Partial History of Lost Causes, resulting in an intricate novel of multiple layers and truly compelling characters. It 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.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Largehearted Boy (Jennifer duBois' own recommended playlist to pair with the book)
Devourer of Books


Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing an e-galley of this title for review, via NetGalley.
A Partial History of Lost Causes | Jennifer duBois | March 2012 | 384 pages | Buy from an independent near you


  1. Wow, this sounds like quite a heartbreaking story. I'm interested to see how the author addresses the subject because it seems like a very difficult question. Thanks for the introduction.

    1. Heartbreaking is definitely a good word for it, but it is also hopeful in its own way. I hope you get a chance to read it!

  2. I've been sitting on an ARC of this book for a while now. It sounds so good, so I'm not sure why I've put off reading it. Thanks for the nudge with your review.

    1. I'd been doing the same, and was glad I finally got to it. It's a bit on the melancholy side, but it's fantastic.


Thanks for stopping by!