Cartwheel is Jennifer duBois’ second novel, after A Partial History of Lost Causes (which I bought a copy of over a year ago and have yet to read.) Many reviewers loved it; it was chosen as a staff favorite for 2013 at Slate and hit #12 on the list of 50 Best Books of 2013 at BookPage.
In Cartwheel, a father travels with his college-age daughter to Buenos Aires, to be joined shortly by his ex-wife. Not for a vacation, but because their other daughter, Lily, has been arrested and put in jail on suspicion of killing her roommate while doing a semester abroad in Argentina. Both young women, the victim and the accused, were American college students sharing a room in the home of the same host family. Lily’s father has heard reports in the local and national media that Lily was seen on security camera footage doing a cartwheel when left alone in the police interrogation room. He want to doubt this fact, but can’t. This action of his incautious daughter – easily lending itself to multiple interpretations – makes Lily a lightning rod for the tabloids and other media.
At the start of the book there is this note:
“Although the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox, this is entirely a work of fiction. None of the characters are real. None of the events ever happened. Nothing in this book should be read as a factual statement about real-life events or people.”
The author’s depiction of a privileged Middlebury College student – unsure of how to behave with her host family, perhaps jealous of her prettier, more socially adept roommate – getting caught in a web of police investigation with a weak alibi and an even weaker grasp of Spanish, places a reader into the thick of the confusion and mixed signals, leaving a reader as exasperated with Lily’s behavior as her father is. It is easy enough to misinterpret actions and what people say in normal, everyday life, especially in a foreign language and culture. How much more so after a horrendous tragedy! What is evidence, a clue, and what is random or just an error in judgment? Is Lily naive and socially awkward, or privileged and arrogant?
I liked Cartwheel as I was reading it, but so much was left unknown and unsaid, that I ended up dissatisfied with it. I kept expecting to understand more about each character, but then the book ended and I didn’t. Maybe if I had followed the story of Amanda Knox (who has written a memoir, Waiting to Be Heard) and was more familiar with the details, I could have compared the novel, while reading it, to the tabloid reportage that came out at the time when the American study-abroad student Amanda Knox was arrested and (eventually) acquitted. Or maybe I read Cartwheel too soon after reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which was just the kind of enormous, sprawling, family story I love.
For whatever reason, although I admired the writing and enjoyed all the wordplay and clever characterizations, Cartwheel just didn’t come together for me in the end.
Read the beginning of the novel here.
Sept. 24, 2013
Disclosure: I was given access to an electronic advance reading copy by the publisher through NetGalley, but didn’t get to it in time, so I read this book from the public library.