Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

In brief: Lily is a university student on an exchange program in Buenos Aires, who is accused of murdering her roommate.

The good: A lot of thinking and reflecting by the characters around Lily, skirting around the question – did she do it?

The not-so-good: Those familiar with the Amanda Knox case will see some similarities in stories.

Why I chose it: Copy sent to me by Scribe Publications – thank you!

Year: 2013

Pages: 368

Publisher: Scribe Publications

Setting: Buenos Aires

My rating: 8 out of 10

I think most people would be at the very least vaguely familiar with the story of Amanda Knox, an American exchange student who was charged with her roommate’s murder in Italy. Cartwheel takes that idea and fictionalises it as Lily Hayes, arrested for murdering her roommate in Buenos Aires. Making the story a fictional one allows duBois and the reader to explore beyond the sensationalist new stories and get into the depth of a murky crime where the question is, ‘did she do it?’

The story unfolds as Lily’s father Andrew and sister Anna land in Buenos Aires for the first time to visit Lilly after her arrest. From the first few pages, we know that this is not going to be an ordinary case. Lily has done several odd things – accepted being interviewed in Spanish (despite her lack of fluency), rejected a lawyer and most baffling, turned a cartwheel in the interview room when left alone. This cartwheel will become a recurring motif throughout the book, asking why? Is it a symbol of the refusal to be repressed, youth or plain stupidity? Subsequent chapters go back in time so that we meet Lily and find out the events leading up to the murder of Katy, her roommate. We discover her odd relationship with the eccentric Sebastien next door, the awkward distrust between Lily and her host mother Beatriz and see that Lily is searching for something – but even she doesn’t know what it is.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the time frame as the novel jumps from pre-Katy’s murder to the aftermath. More characters are introduced, including the prosecution lawyer Eduardo and his own complex marital relationship and Lily’s seedy co-workers. We find out more about Sebastien’s own unorthodox past – this made me doubt him even further. He’s a strange character, with a dry wit that becomes increasingly disturbing as time goes on. Is this really the voice of a young man, orphaned and at odds with the rest of the world? I think Sebastien’s story could make a promising book on its own. The only thing holding it back is his reluctance (or perhaps inability) to tell the truth plainly – it must be cloaked in sly witticisms and obscure references.

Sebastien’s shrouding of the truth seems to be a common theme for most of the characters in this book. Andrew holds back his fears that he and his ex-wife Maureen raised Lily inadequately. Anna is disturbed by Lily’s killing of a slug as a child – so much so she neglects to tell her family some things. We never find out the details of Beatriz and her husband’s problems, nor how Katy seemed to know all about them. This gave the characters a ghostly quality for me, and didn’t make them particularly likeable for me. Even Lily wasn’t immune – I know she’s young, but she continually made silly decisions and didn’t even try to help herself at times. Her behaviour seemed to fluctuate, so much so that I became suspicious of her motives, thinking it wasn’t just immaturity – but also feeling that she couldn’t be possible of murder. This innate distrust of all the characters really kept me guessing and wondering about Lily’s innocence throughout the whole novel.

I did enjoy duBois’ prose and her skill in creating my suspicions regarding these fictional characters. I have read elsewhere that many of the events in the book are ‘too close’ to the Amanda Knox case, but as I only knew the general picture, the book was a continual surprise for me. I think the power of her writing kept me wondering, wrapped up in the characters as if they were real. The ending seemed to wrap things up rather quickly, but the tone of questioning and wondering carried out regardless.

duBois also demonstrates in this novel the power of social media/technology and its ability to suddenly turn on you. Lily’s comments in emails, Facebook walls and voice mail are endlessly scrutinised by a hungry media, showing that a flip comment can turn into a scrutinised statement once the world is looking. (It makes me wonder what the outcome would have been if she was also a prolific Tweeters and Instragrammer).

duBois’ style made this book incredibly readable. I’ll be looking out for more of her work.

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6 thoughts on “Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

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  1. I read this, too. Here is what I thought.

    CARTWHEEL is a story, but, even more, it is an examination of how people think of themselves and how others see them, how easily misunderstandings occur, and how the innocent can appear guilty.

    Jennifer DuBois based her story on a true one from the headlines, which anyone can do. But she does with it what few writers come close to doing. Her novel A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES received many great reviews and awards, but here’s a prediction: CARTWHEEL will do even better.

    The story: Lily is a US citizen and student living in Buenos Aires to study there for a semester. She stays in someone’s home with another student, Katy. Eventually, Katy is murdered, and Lily is arrested as the suspect.

    DuBois tells the story through the eyes of different characters, including Lily; Sebastian, the boy next door who loves her; Lily’s sister and father; and the manipulative prosecutor, so concerned about his record of convictions that he is convinced of Lily’s guilt even after DNA results prove that someone else is the murderer. In this way, we see how they see themselves and each other, and how they perceive and misconceive others’ actions and events.

    Warning: DuBois does something many readers normally dislike. She goes off on tangents; that is, she sometimes has characters, especially Lily’s father, remember events that happened years ago. Her intention, it seems, is to show how one event leads to another and to another, and so on. Other authors do this, too, and it’s boring and tedious. But DuBois’ descriptions are riveting.

    Although, as I said, this is a story, and there is plot, CARTWHEEL is mostly character driven. And that is another warning. Some readers prefer plot-driven novels, and CARTWHEEL is not that. CARTWHEEL is a beautifully written and riveting character study as they are set in this story of an American girl accused of murder.

    This review is of an ARC provided by Random House and won through atrandom.com.

  2. I’ve just skimmed your review since I’m currently reading Cartwheel right now (and so far enjoying it), but I recommend you check out duBois’ first novel A Partial History of Lost Causes, which is different but also very good.

  3. This sounds a very good book. I was intrigued by the Amanda Knox case but don’t think I know all the details. I will definitely try this book if I come across it. Good review!

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