Cartwheel: A Novel

Image of Cartwheel: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 24, 2013
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“. . . an astonishing, breathtaking, and harrowing read.”

It’s all about momentum with Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois.

The novel quickly hooks the reader into the narrative and then continues to hold our attention as we roll with it, as though on a downhill slope, heading inevitably, inexorably, toward its devastating conclusion. Cartwheel inspires a cartwheel of changing emotions in the reader as it introduces us to morally complex characters in terrifying situations that are often completely out of their control. It leaves our heads spinning.

Cartwheel tells the story of Lily Hayes, an American foreign exchange student in Buenos Aires. Lily is arrested by the Argentine police, accused of the murder of her fellow exchange student—and roommate—Katy. The narrative is prefaced with an admission: “Although the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox, this is entirely a work of fiction.”

The action is also prefaced by a quotation from Nabokov, who of course wrote Lolita, and there is a sense that this novel is as much a study of the enduring perspectives and prejudices regarding female sexuality—that old virgin/whore debate—as it is about the actual murder. Like the tabloid fodder “Foxy-Knoxy,” Lily is a young woman whose every action, whose every comment is dissected, pored over, objectified, misread, deplored.

Like Nabokov’s work, Cartwheel is at once a philosophical and discursive novel, but also an addictive, challenging read. It is most definitely not a linear narrative. Instead the murder lies at the center of the action, and the threads of the story spread out from that like cracks in an opaque window.

The reader is taken back and forward in time. We view the crime—and the events leading up to it—from different angles, rather as if we are the jury in a courtroom and Kevin Costner is trying to show us the angle at which a bullet hits (in JFK).

In addition to the shifting timeframes, Jennifer duBois also masterfully handles the transitions between her large cast of point-of-view characters as they offer their stories, their testimony on Lily. She fully inhabits this wide range of characters. She lends them utterly distinct voices—from the exhausting Sebastien, Lily’s beau, to Andrew, Lily’s suffering father who is trying to hold his family together in the wake of the arrest; and from the dogged and emotionally complex Argentine prosecutor Eduardo to Lily herself.

Lily is, from Andrew’s perspective, a young woman who: “Didn’t want to tiptoe through her life—she wanted to act impulsively; she wanted to be understood and, if need be, forgiven. She wanted everyone to know that she meant well.” She is: “high-spirited, certainly, and maybe there were times when that had put her out of sync with her peers in various small ways.”

But according to the prosecutor, Eduardo, her high-spiritedness and her impulsiveness are examples of her privileged upbringing, her spoiled-brat American childhood, her inability to grow up. According to him, it is her inability to think about consequences, her utter lack of empathy, which leads her to play her part in the killing: “But she had always, always been a person who could have killed somebody—as, in Eduardo’s experience, a terrifying number of people were. It was this potential, ultimately, that she’d brought to the crime.”

According to Eduardo, Lily’s crime has been hardwired into her. It is all wrapped up in her way of seeing the world. When people asked him when he’d known Lily was guilty: “Eduardo would laugh and say that of course he never knew, that he still didn’t know. His job was just to make the case for the state and the state’s case, one had to admit, was ironclad. But the truth was he did know, and he had first known when the judicial police had brought him Lily Hayes’ camera.”

And: “It was certainly not the kind of trail that most of Eduardo’s suspects left in their wake. Eduardo did not believe that crime—murder in particular—was ever inevitable. But with most defendants, you could track the way each misfortune had impelled the next; you could look at their lives and nearly reach out to trace the filigreed twists and turns that had deposited them, with shaking hands, before their victims and their fates. Most defendants Eduardo saw were broken. Lily Hayes—if she was guilty—had never been whole.”

But as with the case of Amanda Knox, there is another point-of-view character in proceedings. According to the media portrayal of events, the virgin/whore—with Katy playing the virgin and Lily the whore—narrative has already been written. They already know “what story they were trying to tell.”

Even Eduardo is aware of this: “This presumption of guilt bled into the reporting, of course, and the handling of Lily Hayes’ case was no exception: the media had managed to unearth everything she had ever written online (the coarse and callow emails, the narcissistic and weirdly longwinded diary entries on publicly viewable journals, the Facebook status updates that had endured out in the ether, long after she’d forgotten them) as well as everything anyone had ever written about her . . . Eduardo was aware that all of this gave him an unfair advantage.”

And: “The coverage was only just beginning to leak over to the United States, anyway, and Andrew had spent long hours on the internet looking for the stories: the depictions of Lily as hyper-sexual, unstable, amoral; the lurid intimations about her romantic jealousy and rage; the accounts of her smug and towering atheism. The fact she hadn’t cried . . .”

The prosecutor allows this prejudice to creep into his language: “This language, too, was intentional. In public, in the courts, Eduardo would refer to Katy as a ‘girl’ and Lily as a ‘woman, whenever he wasn’t referring to them as ‘victim’ and ‘defendant,’ even though Lily was, in fact, three and a half months younger than Katy had been when she died. . . . You could subtly direct the judges toward the truth through small adornments and pressures and omissions; Eduardo would not deviate from the facts, of course, but there was nothing wrong with using words with slightly different connotations in order to illuminate the reality of a situation.”

But in truth, the “reality of a situation’ is all about perspectives. One of the key points of separation here is the titular cartwheel.

At one point during the police’s interrogation of Lily, the interviewing officers leave the room and Lily, inexplicably, performs a cartwheel right in front of the “watchful gaze of the security camera.” And this, remember, is immediately after she has discovered the butchered body of her roommate. Even Eduardo is aware of the conflicting views:

“Take, for example, the cartwheel. Eduardo had worked enough high profile cases to know how the cartwheel would play, what binary of accusation and defense would grow in its wake. For the prosecution, by way of the media, an argument would be made that the cartwheel was callous, flippant, reflective of the same kind of bottomless disregard that could, given the right circumstances and drugs, disregard another human life. The counter-argument, obviously, would assert that the cartwheel was whimsical and guileless; an exuberant outburst that was now being willfully misunderstood by the old and humorless and the agenda-having.”

Eduardo is old and humorless. He does have an agenda. He appears to hate the young, and students in particular: —“Lying in bed at night, Eduardo would catch snatches of their conversations, the sonar rise and fall of their voices. The politics changed, but the talk stayed the same—always performative, always self-impressed, whether they were debating a debt default or complaining about a recession or adopting that tone of awful jokey charisma that they thought (finally!) might get them laid. Eduardo could only figure that they talked so loudly because they thought they were brilliant and hilarious and that they were doing everybody in the neighborhood a favor by making them listen.”

Andrew Hayes is obviously prejudiced in another way. Because Lily is his daughter. But his perspective on the world has also been clouded by the fact his family has already been tainted by tragedy: “Not that Andrew had ever given up on working through the hierarchies of pain, teasing out the taxonomies of grief; he scorned people who were untouched by death, and he loathed people who shared experiences about their dying parents when he spoke of Janie (WHO CARES, he wanted to shout, THIS IS THE WAY OF THINGS). The only people he truly respected were the ones whose pain was objectively, empirically, worse than his. There was a man in Connecticut, for example, who’d lost his entire family . . .”

Andrew’s view on Lily never truly wavers, but he does come to understand that some aspect of Lily’s character has contributed to put her behind bars. She may be innocent of the crime, but she is guilty of a sense of all-American entitlement which seems to make other people want to bring her down, to give her “what she deserves:” “Andrew saw now—that expectation of the universe’s benignity. Lily felt she did no wrong, and that this demanded that no wrong be done unto her. The simplicity of this thinking beggared belief.”

Andrew finds an unlikely ally in his thinking about this being a cruel world in Sebastien, Lily’s beau, the boy who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “the boy next door.”

Sebastien too has lived a life scarred by tragedy. His parents died when he was still young and this boy “of the perpetual darkness” lives in an “enormous horrifying house” that lies adjacent to the Carrizo house where Lily and Katy stayed. It is Sebastien’s belief that “if the universe grants you some favor, it’s going to remember it and eventually make you pay it back. With interest. With criminally predatory interest, quite often.”

Sebastien is also uncommonly aware of how other people see him. He spends his days watching the Carrizo house, and “sometimes he imagined they could see him, too. This fantasy kept him busy and decent, dressed, up at reasonable hours, engaged in activities that were arguably fruitful. He had employed a similar strategy toward his parents, beck when they were recently dead and he was first learning how to live this way. He’d imagined that they were watching him—stern, censorious, though not entirely without sympathy for his plight—and this had saved him, he was sure, to the extent that he could be said to have been saved at all. He realized he was inventing gods for himself—false gods, at that—but he also knew he was not above it.”

Eduardo too is fully conversant with the implications of how we present ourselves to the world and how we are read. For example, he “never commented on changes in facial expressions during interviews—if he did, it would become clear to the interviewee how ephemeral such things were, how easy it was to dispute another person’s perception, how quickly two people’s interpretations of an event became equal and opposing forces and canceled each other out.”

Only Lily, it seems, is unaware of how she is read by other people. And yet, she still performs “herself.” With Sebastien, she plays a role, be it a wit, a sexy beast, or “a spritely elf of high spirits and curiosity.” Even in prison, she plays up to the “tragic victim” role: “The way she looked now was not entirely like herself.” And yet she still seems entirely unaware of the effects these roles might have.

Chance, performance, prejudice, perspective, the media, and the ultimate benignity (or not) of the universe—they all play their part in deciding Lily’s guilt. When Eduardo meets Lily’s more ‘wholesome’ sister Anna, he almost confuses the two: “They were not exactly identical—this one was more compact and her skin was better, though Eduardo couldn’t tell whether this was due to a bit less living or a lot more attention—but these differences seemed circumstantial, especially now. This girl—who had still not seen Eduardo—was just a Lily who exercised and wore sunscreen. And Eduardo was struck now by the unnerving sense that these girls were not different people at all, but just the same girl in different lives.”

In different universes.

Ultimately it is Lily who seals her own fate. In a world which often still frowns upon female self-expression and individuality, she is a sore thumb, and her own words condemn her: “But really, the bulk of the work was done by Lily herself—bit by bit and word by word, in the emails, the voicemail, the fight, the lies—making Eduardo’s case more convincingly than even he could have done, long before she ever took the stand.”

This is an astonishing, breathtaking, and harrowing read.