Jennifer duBois is concerned that some readers of her stunning new novel, Cartwheel, might think the book is somehow factual since the themes of the novel were “loosely inspired” by the Amanda Knox story.
“I’ve noticed that people are sometimes very suspicious of the notion of fiction,” duBois says during a call that reaches her in Orem, Utah, where she is visiting her husband’s family. DuBois, who is 29, and her husband, novelist Justin Perry, met in a writing workshop at Stanford, where both were Stegner Fellows, married almost exactly one year ago, and recently moved to Austin, where she teaches creative writing. “With my first novel [the widely and deservedly praised A Partial History of Lost Causes], because of its female first-person narrator, the first question I was always asked was how much of it is autobiographical. In this case, it’s a famous news story, so there are a lot of questions.”
But in fact, Cartwheel shares only the most basic outline with the story of Amanda Knox, the real-life American student who was tried in Italy for the murder of her roommate. In duBois’ novel, Lily Hayes comes to Buenos Aires for a semester abroad and little more than a month later is arrested for the brutal murder of her roommate Katy Kellers, a college student from Los Angeles.
“I wanted to explore some of the broad issues I saw in the Amanda Knox case,” duBois says, “so Lily Hayes is indeed a conventionally attractive, privileged young woman in a country that she sort of understands but maybe doesn’t totally understand. Beyond that, in all the dialogue, in every scene, nothing at all corresponds to the reality.”
“People seemed to look at this young woman and this case and see very, very different things.”
What most interested duBois about the case was that “people seemed to look at this young woman and this case and see very, very different things—but with similar levels of intensity. So some would say, oh, absolutely that girl did it, there’s something really wrong with her, you can just tell. Then you’d hear others say she was railroaded, it’s ridiculous, there’s no way she did it. And I realized that these reactions and the certainty with which people were feeling them were influenced and inflected by broader issues. This case unfolded at the nexus of a lot of countervailing factors, in terms of class and race and gender and religion and, I think, a kind of cultural misapprehension as well.”
So Cartwheel is at least in part an exploration of how the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world are shaped. The novel unfolds through multiple, shifting points of view. At one extreme is Lily’s father, who, duBois observes, “has this image of Lily as one in a long line of innocent, persecuted young women, the next victim of a witch hunt-like hysteria.” And at the other extreme is Eduardo Campos, the emotionally and morally complex prosecutor, who “sees Lily in the context of a long line of murderous American arrogance.”
And of course Lily, a mixture of naive confidence and insecurity, has her own story about what motivates her. “Lily believes her motivations to be good,” duBois explains. “She looks at her behavior as the tip of this ultimately benign iceberg that means well and wishes no harm and can’t quite grasp that other people don’t see this. I think that’s something everybody always struggles with. We’re always the most sympathetic audience for ourselves because we know all the mitigating variables.”
What makes Cartwheel so psychologically fraught—a reader will not want to put the book down because the story is so gripping, but will find it necessary to put it down because the interactions among the characters are often so intense—is that duBois leaves enough room for doubt that, she reports, early readers are divided in their beliefs about Lily’s innocence or guilt.
“One thing I wanted to gesture toward,” duBois says, “is that each individual contains, certainly not the capacity for murder, but a capacity for some kind of callousness or brutality. Even if she were innocent that doesn’t mean Lily doesn’t contain any capacity for wrongdoing. Something I always think about when somebody commits a crime and they go back into their past and find some small brutality or something is that only in retrospect would this appear to be a horrifying prophecy or omen. It’s interesting to me how people read reality into things.”
One of the most interesting readers of the novel’s reality, a character who demonstrates both how far the novel is from the Amanda Knox case and duBois’ enviable capacity for insight, invention and wit, is Lily’s almost-boyfriend Sebastien LeCompte. A brilliant 20-something who has come home to live as a recluse in the house next to Lily’s host family after his wealthy parents die under mysterious circumstances, Sebastien is preposterous, sardonic, funny and sad, and he embodies a kind of critique of how we talk meaningfully about important things.
“I think Sebastien was the emotional access point to the novel for me because he was the character I came to be most fond of,” duBois says. “Obviously he is a very wounded and a very lonely, lonely person. And obviously the incredibly maddening half-ambiguity in everything he says is a defense against that.
“One reason I was interested in him is that I think somewhere along the line we have become uncomfortable with sincerity. My generation—Millennials—are very comfortable with our vernacular: sarcasm, verbal irony, always saying sort of the opposite of what we mean, which ultimately translates as sincerity because it’s just the inverse. I liked the idea of a character who occupies this hazy middle ground, where people can’t quite take what he says seriously but also can’t just reverse it. I liked the comic potential of that and also, ultimately, the tragic potential.”
DuBois says she thinks her two novels are similar only in that “both books have intellectual and philosophical questions at their center, and I hope those questions are instantiated in characters that feel alive and real and the questions feel not just abstract or silly or cerebral but urgent.”
Cartwheel does indeed move with a sense of urgency. It’s a novel that a reader will be eager, perhaps even desperate, to discuss with other readers.