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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cartwheel: Love and Murder in Argentina

Jennifer duBois's second novel, Cartwheel, just out this week, is a fictional retelling of the Amanda Knox story — the American study abroad student who was arrested and tried for allegedly killing her roommate in Italy in 2007. duBois's novel takes place in Buenos Aires, and her Amanda Knox character is a self-centered New Englander named Lily Hayes, who is arrested for killing her cute Californian roommate Katy. The question in duBois novel, though, seems not to be whether she actually did it, but whether she COULD have done it.

The novel's a quick, thrilling read —it examines Lily's character and the case from several different angles; we're in her head for a lot of the novel, but also we jump to the perspectives of Lily's mysterious, kind of douchey next-door-neighbor-lover Sebastien, the lead detective on the case named Eduardo, and Lily's parents and younger sister Anna.

The eponymous cartwheel here refers to the fact that while Lily was being interrogated for the murder, she does a cartwheel in the interrogation room. Why did she do that? For the detective, and for the easy-to-judge public (like the Amanda Knox story, Lily's story has touched off a media circus), this detail is a sure sign of her guilt. “It was the joy that was the key; nobody cartwheels when they’re paralyzed with grief.” And the cartwheel is also a representative detail of one of the themes of the novel — can oddities like these really be an indicator of guilt? (After Lily discovers the body and calls 911, she's spotted on security camera at a convenience story winking suggestively at Sebastien in the condom aisle, etc.) 

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, because we see several different perspectives, is how each character views these little oddities, as well as the uncontested facts of the case — including that Lily's DNA was on the knife and one of Katy's bras. How does each side — Lily's lawyers and her parents vs. Eduardo the detective — concoct a story that fits all the evidence?

Another of the best parts of the novel is duBois's penchant for characterization. She often lets different characters describe each other to show us the lens through which they're building their stories about what happened. For instance, Eduardo the detective describes Lily's somewhat mysterious boyfriend Sebastien thusly: "But he was also, by all accounts, impossible: sphinxlike, maddeningly detached, forever circling around life and speech, both, in half-ironic, riddle-filled whirlpools." duBois, though, is at her best describing Lily, who "thinks the whole world revolves around the gaping vacuum of her needs.” Lily is totally oblivious about the effects of her actions on others or how her actions might be perceived — whether answering her host family's phone, or taking selfies at a church in a revealing tank top. She is someone who learns things, and can't imagine others around her not knowing that thing she just learned. And so it's the most interesting thing of all time.

But do these qualities of her character make her a murderer? Do they make it possible that she COULD be a murderer? And so we cruise through this incredibly read-able, incredibly well-written novel at breakneck speed to find out.

I loved this book — and I'm actually someone who actively avoided information about Amanda Knox, because I couldn't have cared less about that story. But this story is much more interesting because it doesn't have the dirty feel of news filtered through the tabloid machine. Highly, highly recommended!

7 comments:

  1. Awesome review! I just requested a copy from the Vine.

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  2. I finished this last week and wholeheartedly agree with your review. I actively avoid any and all stories about "middle and upper middle class white girls allegedly behaving badly" stories but was utterly riveted by this. I didn't read duBois' debut, but it has shot to the top of my TBR list. So impressive.

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    1. Glad to hear you liked it, too! duBois debut is very good, too - but very different from this.

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  3. I'm so glad to see you've recommended Cartwheel and the Lowland - both books I have on my shelf. Lahiri got a lackluster review in the NYT book review, but this has restored my faith!

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    1. I saw that NY Times review, too - but I put almost no stock in Kakutani's fiction reviews anymore. She hates everything!

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  4. I loved this book and for a lot of the same reasons. I keep calling it a great book club book simply because there's so much to discuss and everyone will have a different opinion about it.

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  5. Hi Greg,

    The review you posted for Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois read to me like you demonstrated impartiality and insight. You stated your thought the way you should. I appreciate that you show both fairness and balance in your reviews. I will be following your other reviews with interest.

    Thanks!

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