Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review: A Partial History of Lost Causes

I suppose the title should have clued me in: Jennifer DuBois' A Partial History of Lost Causes is a sad book. I mean, so sad that I occasionally had to turn it off and take a break from it just because it was so, well, hopeless. While the theme of lost causes are spread throughout the book, the two primary threads are Aleksandr's wrestling with a corrupt Soviet Union and Irina's wrestling with a dire medical diagnosis. And if it's gloom DuBois is after, she nails it big time.

Aleksandr's life takes place during the Russia of the 70's until today; basically the Russia I grew up with. While I'd appreciated that Russians didn't have the same freedoms I had, I never had the sense of just how 1984 life was there. The secret police, dire living conditions, the arrests and assassinations; I felt like this belonged in a dystopian novel, not recent historical fiction. And if you can read past the mud and the muck that Aleksandr lived through, there's the whole question of how you influence a system that's so stacked against change.

And then there's Irina's story. Hers makes Aleksandr's seem downright cheery. She's coping with a diagnosis of Huntington's disease, which is passed genetically. So not only do we see Irina face down her mortality, but she gets a front row seat in watching her own father die of the disease she's been slated to suffer.

OK, it's sad. But now what? I suppose DuBois could have waived her magic author's wand and given Aleksandr or Irina divine intervention. But luckily for us, she doesn't take the easy way out. No, we get the opportunity to see these lost causes play out as and we see first hand what you can do when you have no good options. It's intriguing and reminds us that ultimately, we are all lost causes. Nobody gets out of this world alive.

It's definitely a dense book and one I wouldn't want to re-read anytime soon, but I'm glad I took the ride.

Two other aspects of the book caught my attention. First, the audio book version (the way I "read" the book) is done quite well. The chapters are told in first person by Irina and Aleksandr, and the audio book follows suite by having two different narrators. They complement each other well and ultimately make the book more entertaining.

And second, this book was categorized in the library as historic fiction. Which it is. However, it's the first piece of historic fiction I've read that takes place during my lifetime. Aleksandr is quite obviously based on the chess champion Garry Kasparov, both of which are beaten by a computer and get involved in anti-Putin politics. The Russian Apartment Bombings are featured as well, matching down to the story of explosives marked as sugar. Naturally, there's plenty of fiction, too. It was a little disorienting reading about such vivid accounts, yet not having them match up to the reality of the events. Ultimately, the historic part of A Partial History is secondary to the key theme of living your best life. And for that, the fiction doesn't get in the way.

Read it, but don't say I didn't warn you.

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