Reviews for Cartwheel : A Novel

Booklist Reviews 2013 September #1
*Starred Review* Lily Hayes, 21, is a study-abroad student in Buenos Aires. Her life seems fairly unexceptional until her roommate, Katy, is brutally murdered, and Lily, charged with the crime, is remanded to prison pending her trial. But is she guilty, and who is Lily, really? To find answers to these questions, the novel is told from multiple points of view--not only that of Lily but also that of her family; of sardonic Sebastien, the boy with whom she has been having an affair; and of the prosecutor in the case. In the process, it raises even more questions. What possible motive could Lily have had? Why, left momentarily alone after her first interrogation, did she turn a cartwheel? And has she, as her sister asserts, always been weird? In her skillful examination of these matters, the author does an excellent job of creating and maintaining a pervasive feeling of foreboding and suspense. Sometimes bleak, duBois' ambitious second novel is an acute psychological study of character that rises to the level of the philosophical, specifically the existential. In this it may not be for every reader, but fans of character-driven literary fiction will welcome its challenges. Though inspired by the Amanda Knox case, Cartwheel is very much its own individual work of the author's creative imagination. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 October
Lost innocence, abroad

Jennifer duBois is concerned that some readers of her stunning new novel, Cartwheel, might think the book is somehow factual since the themes of the novel were “loosely inspired” by the Amanda Knox story.

“I’ve noticed that people are sometimes very suspicious of the notion of fiction,” duBois says during a call that reaches her in Orem, Utah, where she is visiting her husband’s family. DuBois, who is 29, and her husband, novelist Justin Perry, met in a writing workshop at Stanford, where both were Stegner Fellows, married almost exactly one year ago, and recently moved to Austin, where she teaches creative writing. “With my first novel [the widely and deservedly praised A Partial History of Lost Causes], because of its female first-person narrator, the first question I was always asked was how much of it is autobiographical. In this case, it’s a famous news story, so there are a lot of questions.”

But in fact, Cartwheel shares only the most basic outline with the story of Amanda Knox, the real-life American student who was tried in Italy for the murder of her roommate. In duBois’ novel, Lily Hayes comes to Buenos Aires for a semester abroad and little more than a month later is arrested for the brutal murder of her roommate Katy Kellers, a college student from Los Angeles.

“I wanted to explore some of the broad issues I saw in the Amanda Knox case,” duBois says, “so Lily Hayes is indeed a conventionally attractive, privileged young woman in a country that she sort of understands but maybe doesn’t totally understand. Beyond that, in all the dialogue, in every scene, nothing at all corresponds to the reality.”

“People seemed to look at this young woman and this case and see very, very different things.”

What most interested duBois about the case was that “people seemed to look at this young woman and this case and see very, very different things—but with similar levels of intensity. So some would say, oh, absolutely that girl did it, there’s something really wrong with her, you can just tell. Then you’d hear others say she was railroaded, it’s ridiculous, there’s no way she did it. And I realized that these reactions and the certainty with which people were feeling them were influenced and inflected by broader issues. This case unfolded at the nexus of a lot of countervailing factors, in terms of class and race and gender and religion and, I think, a kind of cultural misapprehension as well.”

So Cartwheel is at least in part an exploration of how the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world are shaped. The novel unfolds through multiple, shifting points of view. At one extreme is Lily’s father, who, duBois observes, “has this image of Lily as one in a long line of innocent, persecuted young women, the next victim of a witch hunt-like hysteria.” And at the other extreme is Eduardo Campos, the emotionally and morally complex prosecutor, who “sees Lily in the context of a long line of murderous American arrogance.”

And of course Lily, a mixture of naive confidence and insecurity, has her own story about what motivates her. “Lily believes her motivations to be good,” duBois explains. “She looks at her behavior as the tip of this ultimately benign iceberg that means well and wishes no harm and can’t quite grasp that other people don’t see this. I think that’s something everybody always struggles with. We’re always the most sympathetic audience for ourselves because we know all the mitigating variables.”

What makes Cartwheel so psychologically fraught—a reader will not want to put the book down because the story is so gripping, but will find it necessary to put it down because the interactions among the characters are often so intense—is that duBois leaves enough room for doubt that, she reports, early readers are divided in their beliefs about Lily’s innocence or guilt.

“One thing I wanted to gesture toward,” duBois says, “is that each individual contains, certainly not the capacity for murder, but a capacity for some kind of callousness or brutality. Even if she were innocent that doesn’t mean Lily doesn’t contain any capacity for wrongdoing. Something I always think about when somebody commits a crime and they go back into their past and find some small brutality or something is that only in retrospect would this appear to be a horrifying prophecy or omen. It’s interesting to me how people read reality into things.”

One of the most interesting readers of the novel’s reality, a character who demonstrates both how far the novel is from the Amanda Knox case and duBois’ enviable capacity for insight, invention and wit, is Lily’s almost-boyfriend Sebastien LeCompte. A brilliant 20-something who has come home to live as a recluse in the house next to Lily’s host family after his wealthy parents die under mysterious circumstances, Sebastien is preposterous, sardonic, funny and sad, and he embodies a kind of critique of how we talk meaningfully about important things.

“I think Sebastien was the emotional access point to the novel for me because he was the character I came to be most fond of,” duBois says. “Obviously he is a very wounded and a very lonely, lonely person. And obviously the incredibly maddening half-ambiguity in everything he says is a defense against that.

“One reason I was interested in him is that I think somewhere along the line we have become uncomfortable with sincerity. My generation—Millennials—are very comfortable with our vernacular: sarcasm, verbal irony, always saying sort of the opposite of what we mean, which ultimately translates as sincerity because it’s just the inverse. I liked the idea of a character who occupies this hazy middle ground, where people can’t quite take what he says seriously but also can’t just reverse it. I liked the comic potential of that and also, ultimately, the tragic potential.”

DuBois says she thinks her two novels are similar only in that “both books have intellectual and philosophical questions at their center, and I hope those questions are instantiated in characters that feel alive and real and the questions feel not just abstract or silly or cerebral but urgent.”

Cartwheel does indeed move with a sense of urgency. It’s a novel that a reader will be eager, perhaps even desperate, to discuss with other readers.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 September #2
A young, white American woman studying overseas is accused of murdering her roommate. She is seen through different prisms in this second novel from duBois (A Partial History of Lost Causes, 2012). According to the author, "the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox." The first link is the title, which appropriates Amanda's notorious cartwheel while in police custody in Italy. The cartwheeler here is 20-year-old Lily Hayes. She has come to Buenos Aires, ostensibly, to further her studies. Her roommate is bland, beautiful Katy Kellers from Los Angeles. Their neighbor, who lives by himself in a decaying mansion, is the ridiculously rich American Sebastien LeCompte. The young, lonely, epicene Sebastien, who hides his true self under layers of affectation, belongs in Capote country. He would seem an improbable boyfriend for either of the women, yet he and Lily begin a relationship, with Lily calling the shots. The horror comes one night when Lily finds Katy stabbed to death. The state investigator, Eduardo Campos, is convinced of Lily's guilt. The novel begins with Lily's professor father, Andrew, visiting her in a holding cell. It cycles through four viewpoints (Andrew, Lily, Sebastien, Eduardo) and moves between the buildup to the murder and its aftermath. The author may have been hoping to combine a crime novel with a novel of character. Neither one works. The awkward construction means suspense is minimal. Attempts to cannibalize Amanda's story, such as Lily's fingering of her black boss at the club where she worked weekends, fall flat. Lily herself is a not very interesting addition to those thousands of young Americans looking to spread their wings in an exotic locale. Readers are meant to presume her innocence while retaining a tiny sliver of doubt, reinforced by that ballyhooed, albeit irrelevant, cartwheel. So what really went down? The dubious confession of the killer is the only clue. A tangled tale that leaves protagonist Lily, and the crime, unilluminated. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 September #2

Bound for Buenos Aires, Prof. Andrew Hayes is on his way to try to help save his daughter Lily from life in a foreign prison. Just arrested for the murder of her foreign exchange roommate, Lily has declined having a public defender present during questioning and seems blithely unaware of her precarious legal standing. As the days surrounding the murder are unveiled, Lily's actions are viewed through the eyes of the media, her father, her boyfriend, and the prosecutor, as well as through her own eyes. Doubts arise as to whether she is innocent of this hideous crime. VERDICT With a nod to the real life case of Amanda Knox, duBois's (A Partial History of Lost Causes) novel is a character study in the oblivious young adult abroad and a family in crisis mode. While her book is cleverly written, duBois never builds any sympathy for her characters, taking a detached clinical view rather than engaging the emotions. [See Prepub Alert, 6/24/13.]--Joy Gunn, Paseo Verde Lib., Henderson, NV

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 July #2

Taking themes that were "loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox," Cartwheel follows American exchange student Lily Hayes, who has been accused of murdering her roommate, Katy Kellers, in Argentina. Like Knox, Lily's troublesome lack of anguish, as reportedly evidenced by canoodling with her boyfriend the day after the murder, causes an uproar in the media. Like Knox, Lily seems to have been completely normal--so normal, in fact, that her disbelief at her predicament leads to some bad choices. While duBois (A Partial History of Lost Causes) clearly has the authorial chops to illustrate complex characters, Cartwheel remains flat partly because she seems more focused on avoiding right answers or easy sympathy than creating characters who are more than moral specimens. While muddying the waters of right and wrong is almost always a valiant cause in literature, this novel reads more like an intellectual exercise in examining all the different angles rather than an emotional engagement with human beings. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Oct. 1)

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