Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes ~ Jennifer duBois

I hope everybody had a very Merry Christmas!  I had a great day - gifts and breakfast with my nephew in the morning (he made out like a bandit - "I didn't know I was this good" was his response to all the gifts under the tree!), and sushi, board games, and relaxation in the afternoon with my husband.  And after weeks of build-up, it's all over.  Sigh.  Oh well, back to life as usual...or something like it, since I don't have classes for another month!  Well, blogging as usual at least, as I attempt to squeeze in all of this year's remaining reviews in less than a week.

Despite my lofty fall reading goals, I only managed to read one full-length piece of writing in print all season.  I won Jennifer duBois's newly-published debut novel from Zeteticat at Bookish Habits back in September, so when I had some free time thanks to Hurricane Sandy (really, no thanks to her), I decided to pick it up.  I thought I'd like it...  I wanted to like it...  But it took me a month to get through, only partially due to graduate school, and in the end it just didn't do it for me.

The book has two intersecting story lines: Irina Ellison, an American academic woman with a diagnosis of Huntington's, symptoms of which should start kicking in when she's 32, told in the first-person; and Aleksandr Bezetov, a Russian world chess champion who challenges the government and expects to be killed for it, told in the third-person.  Their stories collide when Irina decides to drop everything shortly before her 32nd birthday and take herself off to Russia to try and meet Bezetov, with whom her father once corresponded, in the hopes that he can answer her father's final question.  Though she never says so directly, it becomes apparent that Irina has no intention of returning from Russia to become a burden on her family and friends.

...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.  Surely there are those that have been lost from the start...  When you find yourself playing such a game or match or 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 again the edges of your own self? (55)

What to do in the face of certain defeat, when the cause is already lost?  Irina takes herself out of the situation, to be defeated on her own; Aleksandr keeps on fighting, in the hope that by losing his own cause, maybe another will succeed in the future.  It's powerful, an interesting look at predestined demise.

And the writing is good - very good in fact.  It's dense and very intelligent, and probably would discourage a lot of readers, but that's not what did it in for me.  Objectively, I could tell that this was a Good Book.  I don't know what it was exactly.  I certainly had little knowledge of/interest in the whole Russian political setting, which really dominates Aleksandr's chapters, though usually that kind of thing doesn't bother me in a well-written novel.  The Huntington's aspect didn't do much for me either (by the way, this lack of interest in both of the plots made me feel like a terrible person - just saying), but again, that shouldn't have been an issue.  I think the novel just lacks a spark.  I couldn't like poor little woe-is-me Irina (whose situation really does suck - I think it would be better not to know what's coming) and I just couldn't engage with Aleksandr.  It wasn't by any means a bad book, it just didn't do it for me.

I do, however, have to say that I really enjoyed the ending.  It's tragic but happy at the same time (if you don't look at it too broadly, AKA beyond the main characters) and really fit the novel and the two main characters' goals.  Satisfying without being saccharine.  I would read future novels by DuBois, even though this one didn't blow me away.


  1. I agree with you on this one. The writing was generally good, though verging into the purple prose arena on more than one occasion, but I wasn't able to finish this one.

    1. I did manage to finish it, but it took me a while, partly because of grad school and partly because I was just not into it.