Book review: Murder plot twists, turns in 'Cartwheel'

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Writer Jennifer duBois did a neat trick in "Cartwheel." She created a story that's part murder mystery and part chick lit, but ultimately much more. With "Cartwheel," Ms. duBois made herself heir to some of the great novelists of the past, writers who caught the inner lives of their characters and rendered them on the page in beautiful, studied prose.

By Jennifer duBois
Random House ($26).

From the luxuriousness of Ms. duBois' language it's hard to believe that "Cartwheel" was inspired by a tabloid sensation: Amanda Knox, the young American who was accused, convicted and then acquitted of murdering her roommate in Italy.

Ms. duBois states up-front that her themes were loosely based on the Knox case but says the book is entirely a work of fiction. She tells her tale through the perspectives of four main characters: Lily is the freewheeling 20-year-old exchange student living in Buenos Aires, Andrew is her anxious father, odd Sebastien is the young neighbor with whom she has a relationship, and uptight Eduardo is the lawyer who prosecutes her.

Each of them has experienced a great loss in their lives, which Ms. duBois outlines in detail and offers as motive for their behavior. Andrew and his wife, Maureen, had a child who died as a baby. Lily and her sister Anna feel like they were substitutes for the lost firstborn. Sebastien's parents were killed in a plane crash, and Eduardo was left by his wife, Maria.

Ms. duBois, who is 30 years old, fashions an incredibly complete picture of Lily. She is revealed by her own interior monologues as well as seen through the eyes of others, including the media. Some find her to be an obnoxious girl making stupid, crass choices. Lily views herself as a smart young woman just trying to make a life. The meaning of the cartwheel she does during her initial interrogation (something Amanda Knox was reported to have done) will be analyzed by many throughout the book.

Equally remarkable is Ms. duBois' portrait of the damaged father, Andrew. "The only people he respected were the ones whose pain was objectively, empirically, worse than his," she says. Fuzzier are the natures of Sebastien and, especially, Eduardo, whose belief in Lily's guilt is somehow tied to his preoccupation with his wayward wife.

Sometimes the scalding emotions of these people are intensely felt, such as during the first scene in the Argentinean jail between Lily and Andrew. Other times Ms. duBois' polished prose is so careful and crafted that the reader must stop and simply admire her skill. The writing is so gorgeously contrived and her vocabulary is so huge and impressive that it brings the forward motion of the narrative to a halt.

The story gains momentum when Ms. duBois relates to the morals and manners of the 21st century. Present are all the technological devices that currently pervade out lives: Instagram, online poker, Facebook, texts and email. Recovered voice messages taken from an iPhone are key to the case. References are made to reruns of "Friends," the movie "Lost in Translation," shopping at Target, Lady Gaga and Beyonce, and words such as douche and wow.

Only an observer of her caliber and generation could write this line: "Like a person whose immaculate beauty has faded enough that their stern glasses finally really do look dowdy."

Set primarily in January, February and March, Ms. duBois toggles randomly among these months so the characters are viewed before the crime takes place and after Lily's arrest. The trial is not a major part of the action. Ms. duBois concentrates on Lily's early days in Buenos Aires and how she feels about finally being away from home, her impressions of her host family and her new roommate, beautiful California girl Katy, who will become the victim.

Like any good murder mystery there is plenty of suspense. Katy might not be as innocent as she seems. Something funny is going on in their home away from home. But creating tension is not Ms. duBois' primary concern. Instead, she aims to observe the thoughts that intrude at the most inappropriate times, to capture memories and intricate emotions, and to make penetrating comments about living today. In "Cartwheel," she accomplishes this with acrobatic precision.




Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

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