08 April 2012

You wouldn't be where you are if you weren't mostly a winner - a winner, that is, at those matches that have counted the most. And yet 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, those in which your intellect proved itself to be the limited and temporary and mortal intellect that it does not always seem to be. 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 against the edges of your own self?*
A copy of the letter from Irina's father to Aleksandr is found after his death. The question is crucial, so important for him to have answered, and especially by the famous Russian chess prodigy who has seen definitive battles of logic and skill. Surely he, of all people who have battled and won and sometimes lost, would have the answer which would help define her father's last days. Irina's father, a man who died much too soon from the vicious hereditary illness Huntington's Disease wants this answer, but never received it before he died. When his daughter, Irina, an English professor in Boston, learns that she will also succumb to the brutal hereditary illness of Huntington's as well, she quits her job and travels to Russia to find the man who never answered her father's letter from twenty years before. After all, the journey to find this answer may help define her final days, to give her some form of comfort, or perhaps closure, as well. At the very least, it gives her something to do. She certainly doesn't want to just keep teaching and waiting around to die.

Told in two perspectives switching between Aleksandr and Irina, focusing on politics, chess, love, and death, it's a story that never could have a happy ending, but powerful delivers answers and questions all around. Irina must find her answers, and come to terms with her own life, her death, and ultimately, truly, deeply living. Why watch someone else live their lives? Why not live your own? And really, really live it.

I admit that I struggled a little initially with the story, but to be honest, I can't quite identify what my challenge was. I didn't mind all the chess-speak, and didn't find the frigid, austere setting of St. Petersburg boring at all. Something just initially didn't click for me, but eventually, the rhythm of the story was discovered somewhere at the fifty-page mark when knowing each of the characters felt clearer to me. There's pain in each story, of course. Aleksandr's is told during his time in the early 1980s, describing not only his rise within the chess world, but his introduction to Cold War politics. Obviously there was quite a bit of control held over a public figure at that time, and Aleksandr experiences nothing different. From defiant protesting and subversion from government, then succumbing to the magical evil of politics when the reward is a warm bed, good food, and the ability to play chess all the time.

Irina's story is contemporary, beginning in 2006, and the letter is the vehicle that moves her to travel to Russia to track Aleksandr down. It's all incredibly absorbing and fascinating, and both stories are tough and painful to read. Sadness is a bleak landscape but can be perfectly felt for a reader, and both characters endure emotional turmoil. I was intrigued by both of them, Aleksandr for his loss of his one true love and eventual regrets; and Irina, who after all, does a most unconventional, but quite frankly, practical thing when faced with a slow and painful death. Bravely wanting to spare her family and friends from everything that will soon come, she spends her final days searching for the man who might be able to answer one question. The question has now become her own and Irina's fascinating journey leaves the reader with much to ruminate on and discuss.

This will be a brilliant story for book clubs, and provides so many opportunities to share personal experiences and thoughts. Perhaps my initial challenge was that at times, it seemed to get a bit sidetracked unnecessarily, but ultimately this was a solid debut that tugged at the heartstrings and was commandingly beautiful. Jennifer duBois' gifted story is a penetrating narrative through the toughest crusades a person can ever go through: the ability to live life and find meaning no matter when or how it all might end.

Comprehensive, quiet, and earnestly told, Jennifer duBois' debut is one to remember. I know I will be looking for her next book.

About the Author
Jennifer duBois is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is currently completing a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Originally from western Massachusetts, she lives in Northern California.

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Release Date: 3/20/2012
Pages: 384

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to this book tour and to the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Reader's Copy. To visit all the blog tour stops, please click here.

*Note: The passage quoted comes from an Advanced Reader's Copy. The final finished book may reflect changes.


  1. Sounds interesting. I'll try to remember it starts slow if I get to read it.

    Happy Easter to you and Jason!

  2. I started this book a few weeks ago but set it aside because I felt it started a bit slow...I keep meaning to pick it back up. I must do so especially after reading your review!

  3. Nice review. It sounds like a great read.

  4. GREAT review. I loved this one -- staggeringly good.

  5. Always a well written review from you Natalie. I had difficulties as well with this one, but am glad you could overcome them. I always enjoy reading your thoughts, because it helps me to gauge mine.

  6. i have this galley among my pile and I really should pull it out. it sounds so good!

  7. This has been on my wish list so i was happy to see that you enjoyed it. It really does sound like a terrific debut novel.

  8. I had to reread that book blurb many times ... it sounds very vague but quite intriguing.

  9. That sounds good, one I need to keep my eyes open for!

  10. I'm glad you stuck with this one - it sounds like it all clicked for you around page 50.

    Thanks for being on the tour Natalie!