Published by Random House on September 24, 2013
Written with the riveting storytelling and moral seriousness of authors like Emma Donoghue, Adam Johnson, Ann Patchett, and Curtis Sittenfeld, Cartwheel is a suspenseful and haunting novel of an American foreign exchange student arrested for murder, and a father trying to hold his family together.
When Lily Hayes arrives in Buenos Aires for her semester abroad, she is enchanted by everything she encounters: the colorful buildings, the street food, the handsome, elusive man next door. Her studious roommate Katy is a bit of a bore, but Lily didn’t come to Argentina to hang out with other Americans.
Five weeks later, Katy is found brutally murdered in their shared home, and Lily is the prime suspect. But who is Lily Hayes? It depends on who’s asking. As the case takes shape—revealing deceptions, secrets, and suspicious DNA—Lily appears alternately sinister and guileless through the eyes of those around her: the media, her family, the man who loves her and the man who seeks her conviction. With mordant wit and keen emotional insight, Cartwheel offers a prismatic investigation of the ways we decide what to see—and to believe—in one another and ourselves.
Jennifer duBois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program. In Cartwheel, duBois delivers a novel of propulsive psychological suspense and rare moral nuance. Who is Lily Hayes? What happened to her roommate? No two readers will agree. Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page, and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.
While I know a good bit about Knox, I have no opinion on her guilt or innocence, and I was hoping that Cartwheel would not be a jazzed-up opinion piece designed to push the reader’s opinion in one way or the other. Happily, it was not. Cartwheel features Lily, an American student who travels to Buenos Aires to study. She rooms in a couple’s house with Katy, a beautiful American student. We don’t get to know much about Katy, aside from the fact that she was brutally murdered. (This, sadly, is also mirrored by the Knox case.) The little that we do know about Katy is gleaned from Lily, who views her with varying degrees of disinterest and disdain. Katy, while living, was such a peripheral character, and I have to admit I wasn’t moved much by her murder. The focus was instead on the sensationalism surrounding the case and on those who were caught up in it.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, including that of Lily’s father, Andrew. Andrew is divorced from Lily’s mother, and both parents insist on their unwavering belief in their daughter’s innocence. I don’t know how much of their conviction was due to parental love, because there is some strong evidence to indicate Lily’s guilt, and her behavior is viewed by many as suspicious. Lily’s make enormous sacrifices to travel every other week from the U.S. to Argentina to visit her in jail. Their youngest daughter, who had already felt that she lived in the shadow of Lily, is pushed further aside.
Eduardo, the prosecutor, also shares some narration time. He seems like a kind, decent man, but it’s also clear that he operates based on his intuitions, rather than on actual facts. This seems like a very dangerous approach for a prosecutor to take, but when Eduardo shares the basis for his beliefs, it’s hard not to agree with him.
The oddest character is Sebastien, Lily’s neighbor and boyfriend of a few weeks. He’s swept up in the case when it becomes known that Lily spent at least part of the night with him when Katy was murdered, and Lily ran to his house after finding Katy’s body the next morning. There’s a bizarre scene between Eduardo and Sebastien as Eduardo attempts to elicit information on Lily’s actions. Sebastien has very strange speech and mannerisms, and it seems that he wants to go toe-to-toe with this skilled prosecutor, but his efforts aren’t very successful.
Cartwheel isn’t an Agatha Christie type of whodunit, and there aren’t any clear answers here. It’s more about the impact of the murder on several of those involved. Jennifer duBois does a great job of getting inside their heads and showing us their unique perspectives without attempting to force us in a particular direction.
I always read the acknowledgments and author’s note, and in this case, I think the author’s note is especially important. I only wish that it had been included at the beginning, because I would have had a better understanding of the author’s intention of writing a novel that so closely mirrored facts from an actual case.
Review posted at Goodreads.