Jennifer duBois
A Partial History of Lost Causes
a partial history of lost causes

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About the Book

In Jennifer duBois's mesmerizing and exquisitely rendered debut novel, a long-lost letter links two characters, each searching for meaning against long odds. 

In St. Petersburg, Russia, world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov begins a quixotic quest. With his renowned Cold War–era tournaments behind him, Aleksandr has turned to politics, launching a doomed--and potentially lethal--dissident presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirty-year-old English lecturer Irina Ellison is on an improbable quest of her own. Certain she has inherited Huntington's disease—the same illness that ended her father's life—she struggles with a sense of purpose. When Irina finds an old, photocopied letter her father had written to the young Aleksandr Bezetov—asking how one proceeds in a lost cause—she decides to travel to Russia to find Bezetov and get an answer for her father, and for herself.

Spanning two continents and thirty years, and with uncommon perception and wit, A Partial History of Lost Causes explores the possibilities of courage, the endurance of memory, and the stubbornness and splendor of human will.

Praise for A Partial History of Lost Causes:

Flavorwire: 50 Excellent Novels By Female Writers Under 50

"…Precise and unsentimental…Spinning an ambitious plot, unpredictable but never improbable, [duBois] moves with a magician’s control between points of view, continents, histories, and sympathies."
—The New Yorker


"[A] terrific debut."
—Publisher's Weekly Starred Review
"Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination. Jennifer duBois is too young to be this talented.  I wish I were her."
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story

"Thrilling, thoughtful, strange, gorgeous, political, and deeply personal, Jennifer duBois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes is a terrific debut novel. In prose both brainy and beautiful, she follows her characters as they struggle to save each other. This is a book to get lost in."
—Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and The Giant’s House
"An amazing achievement—a braiding of historical, political, and personal, each strand illuminating the other. Wonderful characters, glimpses of elusive wisdom, and a gripping story that accelerates to just the right ending."
—Arthur Phillips, author of Prague and The Tragedy of Arthur

"By what exquisite strategy did duBois settle on this championship permutation of literary moves? Her debut is a chess mystery with political, historical, philosophical and emotional heft, a paean to the game and the humans who play it. DuBois probes questions of identity, death, art and love with a piercing intelligence and a questing heart."
—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment and The Effect of Living Backwards

"…A psychological thriller of great nuance and complexity…"
The Dallas Morning News

"…A tight story with boldface themes."

The New York Times Book Review

"Original and sweeping…"
Campus Circle

"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."

“[A] mesmerizing debut…
A Partial History of Lost Causes is a tour de force…”

"...Gorgeous...DuBois writes with haunting richness and fierce intelligence. She has an equal grasp of politics and history, the emotional nuances of her complex characters, and the intricacies of chess...A Partial History of Lost Causes is a thrilling debut by a young writer who evidently shares the uncanny brilliance of her protagonists."

“Finding a new writer whose work I love reassures me that the end of storytelling is nowhere near…I can’t remember reading another novel—at least not recently—that’s both incredibly intelligent and emotionally engaging.”
—Nancy Pearl, NPR

“Tender but sharp-edged…Irina’s voice possesses a grim humor and quiet determination that is nothing short of charismatic.”
The Daily Beast

"Astonishingly beautiful and brainy... Strikingly original... Stunning."
O Magazine

"[A Partial History of Lost Causes] is an ambitious and remarkably assured work…That its characters remain humane, funny, and relatable throughout a thorny tale of Eastern bloc politics is a tribute to the author’s exciting, formidable talent."
TimeOut New York

"A Partial History of Lost Causes seems to assert that everything we strive for in life is likely to be, ultimately, a lost cause. But then why is the book so beautiful, so hopeful, so full of life? The beauty, hope, and vitality are all conveyed in the telling of this gorgeous story, rather than in the outcome. Such an important book coming from such a young writer should give us all hope in the glorious lost cause of American fiction."
—David Mallmann at Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, WI

"Whoever it was that coined the phrase ‘the political is personal’ would have enjoyed Jennifer duBois’ debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes. It is both personal and political, as well as hilarious and heartbreaking, winsome and wise…It is the story of last ditch efforts and Hail Mary passes; it is the story of how we struggle to survive and hold on to hope. It is a brilliant and beautiful piece of fiction."
—Kester Smith at BookPeople in Austin, TX

"A Partial History of Lost Causes is probably the best fiction work I have read all year... DuBois has the ability to describe everyday thoughts and emotions in a way that left me breathless. I needed to reread sentences again and again because I was so taken with her prose…I look forward to reading more of her work."
—Erin Grabarczyk at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington, KY

"This novel reads like a classic. DuBois has a natural storyteller's ability. Moving back and forth between the lives of Irina and Aleksandr, she weaves a tight novel rich with complex characters and story lines you watch merge with a satisfying sense of inevitability."
—Julie Wernersbach, BookPeople, Austin, TX

Corriere della Sera

Der Spiegel

BookPage Best Books of 2012

O Magazine Best Books of 2012

Foreign Editions

Italy: Storia parziale delle cause perse, Mondadori
Translated by Silvia Pareschi

Germany: Das Leben Ist Gross, Aufbrau Verlag
Translated by Gesine Schroder

Reading Group Questions

1) Are Irina’s actions ultimately courageous or cowardly? Do you see her ending as happy?

2) In some ways, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s situations are similar—and in many ways, they are very different. What do you think brings Aleksandr and Irina together as friends? What do you think they learn from each other?

3) The character of Misha challenges Aleksandr’s vision of Russia’s democratic future. Is there any merit to his argument about the pragmatism of slower change? How do recent events in the Arab world speak to this argument?

4) Irina treasures her intellect, and fears that she will not be herself anymore once she begins to lose it. What do you think makes you “you”? Do you feel there’s some essential quality that makes you who you are—and that, if you lost it, you wouldn’t be the same person?

5) Why are Aleksandr’s sections written in third person, while Irina’s sections are written in first? How does this decision inform your reaction to the book? Did you find you connected more with either Irina or Aleksandr?

6) What do you think would have become of Ivan if he’d lived?  

7) Irina can often be sardonic and fatalistic. Are there any examples of her behaving in ways that subvert this cynical pose?

8) Beyond Aleksandr’s political career and Irina’s disease, do you see other lost causes in the book? Have you been faced with a lost cause in your own life, and how did you react to it?

9) How does chess work as a metaphor in the book? Is the structure of the game itself mirrored in the structure of the book?

10) Do you think that Aleksandr’s chess brilliance ultimately made him a better or worse person?

Jennifer duBois is available for call ins and group discussions. Please contact her in advance to arrange an appointment.