Author: Jennifer duBois
Genre: Fiction (Russia / 1980s / 2000s / Cambridge, MA / Chess / Politics / Incurable Diseases)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Dial Press (3/20/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Spanning the 1980s through 2008, the novel tells the dual stories of a Russian chess champion turned politician and American academic who assists him.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z
Do I like the cover?: I do -- I believe it's the view of St. Petersburg, Russia from the Neva River, which is where much of the story is set. (Plus, part of it takes place in Cambridge at Harvard, so there's the Charles River, too, and I like the river-y image.)
I'm reminded of...: Valerie Laken, Scarlett Thomas
First line: When Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great span of the Neva.
Did... I sort of get a bit glazed-eye-y at the chess talk?: YES. I don't play chess even though I wish I could, so all the rook to A5 or whatever made me a bit bored but the story was SO fabulous I didn't mind.
Am... I contemplating whether I can leave work early enough to make one of her readings?: YES. Sadly she's not hitting Boston!
Do... I love that the author will join book club discussions?: YES. I think it is so cool that authors do that, and yet again, it makes me yearn for a book club of my own!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, and linger and cry and be moved and sigh.
Why did I get this book?: The cover, and the chess reference, and the Russian-y connection. I don't really recall but zomg am I grateful I did!
Review: Please forgive me while I have a brief spaz out.
THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD WHY DID IT HAVE TO END?!
I'm going to be struggling a bit to provide a useful review (sorry), partially because this plot is so layered and interesting, and partially because it was so great I'm really just shaking the book emphatically at the screen as if that would convey its awesomeness.
Gary Shteyngart blurbs the book on the cover, saying among other things: "I wish I were her." To that I say: true story. I envy duBois' ability to take these seemingly different plot elements and themes -- chess, Russian politics, Huntington's Disease, terrorism, documentary film making, unrequited love -- and make them into one cohesive and coherent and captivating story.
First, I can't even summarize the plot well, so forgive me for doing it badly. Beginning in 1979, we follow Aleksandr Bezetov, a Russian chess champion, as he navigates the world of Communist and post-Communist Russia, and his eventual decision to embark on a seemingly doomed presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. Having watched friends and enemies die and disappear, he's filled with a kind of pragmatic fatalism -- the same kind that fills American Irina Ellison. Thirty-ish, Irina has Huntington's, an incurable and debilitating disease that threatens to fully emerge any year, and on a whim, she decides to chase down the Russian chess champion that her father tried to correspond with decades ago. Once she finds Aleksandr, she becomes his copy editor, and joins his campaign, one that could be considered a lost cause.
The writing is great -- smart but readable, pretty but not overly descriptive -- and I just clicked with duBois' characters. The two leads aren't exactly heroes, nor are they anti-heroes; they're complicated and maddening people, compelling -- I followed them for 370ish pages without complaint and wanted, desperately, more. (It ended exactly where it needed to, though.) The last chapter killed me -- I'm kind of getting teary remembering! -- as it was so deliciously sad and bitter and sweet and pragmatic and hopeful. I reread it this morning on the train to linger with the feeling. Honestly, the whole book was like this -- moving without feeling trite, and coolly pessimistic without feeling unemotional -- and I clearly can't rave enough about it.
In the end, Jennifer duBois needs to be writing more novels, please. Immediately. And you need to read this one, stat.
*** *** ***
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