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17 Books to Watch for in April 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois
Photo: Jesus Ayala/Studio D

A Partial History of Lost Causes

384 pages; Dial
In Jennifer duBois's astonishingly beautiful and brainy debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial), the causes in question are both personal and political. The story begins on the brink of the 1980s in Leningrad, where Aleksandr Bezetov, a chess prodigy about to become an internationally famous champion, abandons his dissident ideals for the luxuries dangled by the Communist Party. Jumping ahead to 2006, we meet Irina Ellison, an American academic diagnosed with Huntington's—a disease she watched grotesquely ruin her father's mind long before it killed him. Now 30 and approaching the age at which her doctors believe she'll start showing symptoms, Irina travels to Russia in search of a response to the question her father, a chess fan, asked years earlier in an unanswered letter to Aleksandr: How do you proceed when defeat is inevitable? By now, Aleksandr has his own lost cause. He is running for president against Vladimir Putin, a quest more likely to get him killed than elected. Against the backdrop of Russia's recent political past, duBois conjures the briefly intersecting lives of two intriguingly complex strangers—prickly, introspective, and achingly lonely—who are nevertheless kindred spirits. Her prose is both apt and strikingly original. (A woman is "thin and light and her efficacious manner gave her the air of a business envelope"; a couple's sex life "began to die quietly, uncomplainingly, with all the meek gravity of a religious martyr.") So how do we proceed when defeat is inevitable? This stunning novel suggests an answer: We just do. Perseverance, it seems, is its own kind of victory.
— Karen Holt

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