Thoughts on Jennifer duBois's Second Novel, Cartwheel

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Written by Sofia Sokolove

Jennifer duBois's second novel, Cartwheel, can only be read at a manic, stay-up-all-night kind of pace. It’s a story that moves with such urgent momentum from the very beginning that you don’t even quite realize its intensity—how swiftly and dizzyingly and fully you have been swept up into its world—until the whole thing is over.

It’s a story that has already pulled us in once, albeit in a different, “real-life” form, through tabloids and international media coverage. Pretty, young, well-off American exchange student is accused of murdering her equally pretty and young roommate. Drugs, sex, and a mysterious foreign boy all become wrapped up in the narrative that we—personally and as a country—construct.

And while Cartwheel was inspired and based on the Amanda Knox trials, it is—as duBois notes at the very beginning—“entirely a work of fiction.” Which is exactly what it needs to be: existing wholly in an imaginary world. DuBois says that in writing the novel, she was looking to explore central questions about “how we decide what to believe, and what to keep believing.” The result is a craftily composed alternate reality, a place that gives both duBois and the reader freedom to question perceptions and try to get at the broader how's? that the Knox narrative begs.

The dizzying nonlinear tale is deeply driven by the minds of each central character.  A master at crafting inner voices, duBois creates a just as convincing young, interesting—if not infuriating—Lily Hayes, the accused, as she does Andrew Hayes, the worn-out, at times clueless, yet indignantly loving father. DuBois brings us from one character to another the way other authors might bring us from place to place—with such accurate, vivid depictions we cant help but be transported there ourselves. She starts with a wide lens and zooms more and more inward—showing us the tiny details or raw human interactions and emotions that make up the large, glossy picture.

When we’re with Lily, her thoughts are perfectly laced with naïveté, realness, and the questionable judgment of someone who hasn’t quite come of age. Lily’s inner monologue as a young modern American woman still figuring out her own sexual power hits with such accuracy and recognition, it raises subtle, powerful questions without any sort of direct or heavy-handed discussion of feminism.

One night, Lily brings Sebastien LeCompote down to a nearby river to play with sticks, to be “spontaneous.” Sebastien is Lily’s sort-of boyfriend—she can’t decide what they are or what she wants him to be— a sardonic native Argentinean, Harvard drop-out who has lived alone in the dusty, moldering mansion across from Lily’s host home since his parent’s mysterious death. Bringing us into Lily’s head, duBois perfectly articulates that confusing, innocent concoction of young adult love, when hormones mix with coming-of-age awareness:

“He smelled slightly oniony, which Lily sort of liked; she found herself pleasantly surprised by his moments of undeniable masculinity, and the way they offset his light eyes and freckles and cerebralism. Sometimes she wished she could tell him this; so many times when he went on and on and on she’d wanted to take his hand or grab his thigh and tell him, Stop it. Just stop it. I was impressed already. But she felt that this would disappoint him somehow; that it would be vulgar; that it would be conventional. And sometimes Lily wondered if maybe she wasn’t the person he was actually trying to impress anyhow.”

It’s moments like these, combined seamlessly with more slippery language that makes Cartwheel both utterly engrossing and completely disorienting. DuBois lets us in on secrets, but leaves room for doubt, at times all within one sentence. Later on in the same night with Sebastien, duBois gives us a darker, but still very recognizable Lily:

“She was laughing a bit more buoyantly than she ordinarily might. This was her little impulsive adventure, after all, and she knew she had to make it feel as though they were having joyful and terrifically arbitrary fun. In the modern world, this was usually the girl’s job. She’d seen enough movies to know…Lily spanked him playfully and then grabbed his hands and pulled him to the ground. She was trying to be spritely elf of high spirits and curiosity. She was trying to be a person who might cause trouble sometimes—but only because she was so lively and noncomformist, only because she was so special, and not because she ever meant any harm.”

The setting in Cartwheel is not tangible—it’s psychological, and the experience of reading it is almost like doing a cartwheel yourself. Its heart-racing momentum grabs you and turns you upside down, and leaves you upright but wobbly, wondering how you landed further from where you started. The momentum of it mirrors how our brains work and opinions are formed. As we digest the stories within the stories—the ones Lily tells herself and the ones those around her tell each other and themselves—we start to question how we form our own stories.

Asking us to examine our own narratives is something almost all fiction does. But there’s something especially electric about the experience of reading a story that is this close to a truth—a story that was so recently being constructed and told in the “real world.” While plenty of great fiction can become cultural commentary as readers relate to it, Cartwheel relates to our own reality in a slicing, almost haunting way. DuBois asks us not only to examine our personal narratives, but to consider how our collective ones are constructed—both the fictional and the real ones.