Published by Random House
Publication date: September 24th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
Maybe that was the problem with this family—they were all in direct competition with one another to see who could bend over backward the farthest, who could suffer the most.
Jennifer Dubois’ new novel, Cartwheel, is as knotted and tangled as the judicial system itself. Add the fact that it takes place in a foreign country and you have the makings of a novel that will grip and twist the reader in the same way as the characters. Set in Argentina it draws upon the Amanda Knox trial for its inspiration. Lily Hayes is a twenty-year-old American student who goes to Buenos Aires for a study-abroad program. Her roommate is the almost preternaturally lovely and composed Katy Keller. Lily is not sure how to respond to her. She is nice and she likes her but she is so perfect she’s boring. Who has teeth that straight and white? She shares her opinions on Facebook and in emails to friends—electronic gossip that comes back to bite her when she discovers Katy dead in their room. With blood on her face and hands and little to no alibi Lily is taken into custody as the prime suspect. Now, the things that make her innately American—her lively, open personality, her belief in a benign world in which she is a protected member—begin to work against her.
In her naïveté and inbred sense of entitlement Lily sees nothing wrong with conversing with the interrogators in Spanish (after all, she took Spanish in college!) even though her skills are woefully inadequate. Her father describes her belief in her fluency as “Vain—obnoxious, really”. Additionally, her upbringing has given her etiquette that works for a dinner party but does not serve as well for self-preservation. One of the pieces of information against Lily is her fingerprint on Katy’s bra. Incriminating except that Lily had been snooping in Katy’s drawers and picked up the bra to look at the size. Snooping is tacky and embarrassing and so she does not mention this. Even to save her life she cannot relinquish her perception of herself: well-liked, nice, polite, friendly, conversant in Spanish. She believes “she had done no wrong, and that this demanded that no wrong be done unto her.”
Much in the same way that some of the best movies are ensemble casts, Dubois does a phenomenal job assembling a group of characters with so many personal tics, emotional layers, and idiosyncrasies that the reader is left wondering about all of them. There are the parents, permanently damaged by the death of their first child, and so befuddled by the predicament their daughter is in they cannot process what is important and what is not. For her father, Andrew, the attitude of embassy personnel seems to exemplify their situation.
He thought she might be chewing gum. He was going to file some sort of formal complaint if she was chewing gum.
Lily’s younger sister, Anna, sees herself as the antithesis of her sister’s freewheeling, gypsy persona, so she excels in school while maintaining a rigorous running schedule. Once she arrives in Argentina with her parents and learns more about Lily’s actions (being interrogated in Spanish and without a lawyer, as well as talking unsupervised to the prosecutor) her attitude becomes almost dismissive, as if Lily is finally getting what comes to her. This youthful arrogance is shattered by Dubois when Anna ends up talking to the prosecutor herself and mistakenly divulges previously unknown information.
Then there is Sebastien, a young man of wealth who lives alone in the mansion his parents left him. They died in mysterious circumstances and his form of coping is to withdraw completely from society.
It often seemed to Sebastien that the entirety of his actual existence had already taken place, and he was now living in a fitful and dull afterlife—that he had not been damned so much as completely forgotten.
He and Lily have a loose relationship that largely involves drinking and sex. He is socially awkward, seeing conversation as a competition but Lily finds him aggravatingly amusing. What he believes to be repartee comes off as patronizing and annoying. He is with Lily on the night of Katy’s murder.
Dubois does not limit her laser observations to Lily and those around her. Eduardo Campos is the prosecutor, a man infused with an almost evangelical belief in Lily’s guilt—even before he talks to her for the first time. When a man is apprehended whose DNA matches that found on Katy’s body, Campos’ first conversation with him makes it clear that Lily is his goal.
“Listen. The only thing you can do now is help us understand how Lily Hayes was involved. This isn’t only the best thing you can do for your case at this point. It’s also basically the only thing you can do for your case…This is the last choice you’ll get to make in all of this. This, really, is the only one.”
Yes, there is much about Lily that leads one to wonder about her capacity to be involved in a murder. At the same time that she displays “a commitment to politeness” she also does a cartwheel when left alone in the interrogation room. It is these contradictions in her behavior that keep the reader unsure as to what they’re seeing. Even when writing from inside Lily’s mind she does little to help herself. In this lies some of the novel’s most compelling scenes.
Cartwheel spirals deeply into the complexities of not just the justice system but the human heart. Who is guilty—both in a literal sense and in a broader context? Dubois’ touch is deft and assured. What could come off as sensational and one-dimensional in the wrong hands is sublimely ambiguous in Cartwheel. By relentlessly probing the soft spots in each character Dubois creates a novel of tension that shatters readers’ preconceived notions and offers few answers, even down to the last sentence.