...an ambitious and remarkably assured work, one that adroitly achieves the daunting task of commingling love, chess, Russian politics and the ravages of terminal illness into a coherent and moving narrative ... Ultimately, the elegant placement of personal tragedy against a backdrop of social and political injustice recalls the dynamic tension of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 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.
DuBois tells a tight story with boldface themes. Drama is constant. Conversations get right to the point. Everything means something. Chess is politics or sometimes war. Losing is dying. There are many gloomy musings on mortality and memory and love. But even with such high emotional stakes, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s self-absorption leaves the story somewhat cold ... They expend so much energy worrying about their fates that it feels almost redundant for us to do so ... But this is just the point duBois wants to make — that obsessing over your own end is a kind of vanity ... There are echoes of the Russia of Gary Shteyngart’s fiction here ... It’s a surprisingly happy ending for a book that purports to teach us how to live when the possibility of a happy ending is foreclosed.
In a novel that conjures the Russian literary tradition, duBois weaves an intricate web of relationships among characters forced to confront difficult existential choices ... Though at times she overreaches for an arresting metaphor, duBois does an admirable job of portraying the death rattle of Communism and the birth of a nominally democratic but persistently corrupt society. She vividly captures the spirit of St. Petersburg and Moscow, not least the cloud of paranoia that hovers over both the old and new Russian worlds ... 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.
...astonishingly beautiful and brainy ... 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.
Beyond replicating the back-and-forth nature of chess with an alternating chapter structure, A Partial History of Lost Causes turns out to bear a close resemblance to the experience of watching a chess match unfold ... Everything is cold, and a heaviness of spirit pervades, and a lot of visible thought takes place, resulting in a sequence of movement that, no matter how brooded over, always happens too fast to see coming until it’s too late. There are some brilliant passages and more compulsive ones, culminating in an ending as quick and satisfying as a checkmate—defeat finally having arrived for one, and survival continued for the other.
For the first 80 or 90 pages, A Partial History of Lost Causes really is a masterful, winning diptych of a novella ... As sharp as she is, bubbling over with energetic, witty first-person (Irina) and third-person (Bezetov) observations, duBois needlessly tosses her heroine into a political romance thriller and mercilessly pursues and knots up 'loose ends' ... DuBois evokes Soviet and modern-day Russia so finely and comically that the tighter and tighter interweavings of the plot sometimes suffocate ...
...mildly piquant debut ... Dubois masks the absurdity by deflecting our attention to Aleksandr’s story (essentially, it’s been his all along) ... Dubois’ impressive mastery of her Russian material makes one hopeful for a more credible story line next time around.
Moving between Aleksandr’s past and Irina’s present journey of self-discovery, the two stories eventually come together as Irina joins Aleksandr’s quixotic political campaign and becomes swept up in his dangerous attempt to expose Putin ... In urgent fashion, Dubois deftly evokes Russia’s political and social metamorphosis over the past 30 years through the prism of this particular and moving relationship.