by Jennifer duBois
Random House (to be published on Sept. 24, 2013)
Review originally posted on July 20, 2013
Wealthy American college girl goes to Italy as a Study Abroad student, ends up in a romantic triangle with her roommate and an Italian student, and the roommate is found murdered. College girl and Italian boyfriend are tried and convicted. Sounds like the plot of a thriller but, of course, truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and it’s the Amanda Knox “story.”
In Cartwheel, Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes, tracks the Knox case closely as she explores the characters of Lily Hayes, her roommate Katy Kellers, and the object of their affection, Sebastian LeCompte, the wealthy young man who lives next door to their host family. Moving the story from Italy to Buenos Aires, Argentina, duBois perfectly captures the surreal nature of being caught up in another country’s legal system, particularly when one has been charged with a shocking murder. Lily is an intriguing, if not particularly likable, young woman and protagonist. Despite her generally good intentions, Lily experiences personal difficulties with her host parents, the Carrizos, who are unusually private; with Katy, of whom she is suspicious because of her all-American good looks and positive attitude; with her employer at Fuego restaurant and bar; and with her divorced parents, pretentious intellectuals whom she addresses as Andrew and Maureen.
The problem is that Lily is brilliant (2280 on the SAT) but self-absorbed and naïve. She is the classic “fish out of water” in a foreign country. She speaks Spanish but still has trouble communicating effectively with many people. She and Katy present what appear to be opposite personas: everything is a struggle for Lily, while everything seems to go smoothly for Katy, and Lily cannot figure out why. Most of her conversations with the other characters are cases of two people talking past each other. Lily doesn’t understand what motivates others and she doesn’t communicate her own needs and attitudes effectively. She is the type of person about whom it has become common to say, “It seems like she has Asperger’s Syndrome. She’s a high-functioning autistic.”
duBois wisely starts in media res, throwing us directly into the action, as Lily’s parents arrive in Buenos Aires following her arrest. The novel then moves back and forth through time to let us see Lily adapting to life in Argentina, developing a relationship with the reclusive eccentric, Sebastien, and struggling to fit in and thrive during her year studying abroad. She has a very casual attitude about her college classes, concentrating instead on learning to live like a local and enjoying herself. We watch as Lily’s circumstances slowly devolve, knowing what is coming but not quite understanding how it could have happened. As with any “tragedy,” the reader notes the many ways in which it could have been prevented had one thing been different: an action not taken, words not said. And yet, like a Greek tragedy, the outcome seems inevitable, even pre-ordained.
Cartwheel is enriched by duBois’ analysis of the motivations of the Argentine prosecutor, Eduardo Campos, and his own personal difficulties; the hunger of the media in Argentina, the U.S., and around the world for the sordid details of the alleged love triangle and murder; and the workings of the justice system.
In the midst of this compelling nightmare of a story duBois has inserted some subtle commentary on the uninformed, inane, and occasionally unethical actions of the media and legal system that will seem very familiar to American readers, who have recently experienced the media circus surrounding the trials of Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, and George Zimmerman. Cartwheel works well as both a suspenseful character study and a timely analysis of the law and media in a world with a 24/7 news cycle that must be fed constantly.
While the many ethical dilemmas and the complex plot make Cartwheel an intense, immersive reading experience, it is not without its drawbacks. The characters are not especially likable. Lily remains somewhat sympathetic despite being her own worst enemy; in the high school where I teach she would be viewed as a smart and eccentric but clueless “drama queen.” Katy Kellers is pleasant but remains something of a cipher throughout the novel, both to Lily and to readers; her main role is simply to be the murder victim.
But it is Sebastien LeCompte, the wealthy young neighbor, who is a completely mystifying character. He is a dandified young man who speaks in a ridiculously arch manner right out of The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Why he appeals to Lily, and possibly to Katy, is a mystery. Perhaps it is because he has spent time attending American schools and speaks English or that his parents have recently died in a small plane crash. He is annoying and even infuriating and has the effect of making aspects of the story seem implausible.
duBois’ writing style presents another stumbling block to the complete success of the novel. It is clear that she is a prodigiously talented young writer. Her first novel was honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. duBois’ writing is a bit like that of a genius who finds it difficult not to display her virtuosic technique and fierce intelligence, even if it does not necessarily serve her purposes. At times, the prose in Cartwheel is wordy and unnecessarily showy. Her fondness for parenthetical comments leads to needlessly dense syntax that interferes with the spell she is otherwise successfully casting early in the novel.
When Cartwheel is good, it is very good. But when it loses its footing, it is awkward and frustrating. There is a great novel, one that truly captures our times, within the pages of this book. Perhaps it will appear in the published version due in late September. Either way, Jennifer duBois is a young writer to be reckoned with, and I look forward to her next book.