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Cartwheel: A Novel

Cartwheel - Jennifer duBois This review and others are posted at Inspiring Insomnia.

Do you know who Amanda Knox is? Your answer to that question may impact how you approach this book. I probably know more than a lot of people about the real-life murder case involving Knox, simply because I have a cousin who is very, very interested in the case, and I've spoken to her many times about it. If you don't know, Knox was an American college student convicted of murdering her roommate while the two were studying abroad in Italy. Knox and another defendant spent several years in prison before the conviction was overturned. The opening of Cartwheel states that "the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox," but "this is entirely a work of fiction." If you know nothing or little about the actual case, you'll likely be captivated by this story. If your knowledge runs deeper, you may have a difficult time losing yourself in the story. So many times, something happened in Cartwheel that made me think, "That's straight from the Knox case." In fact, the title of the book refers to a cartwheel that the fictional Lily does while in police custody shortly after her roommate's murder. The real Knox did a split.

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.