Wheel of (Mis)Fortune
Suspense in Jennifer duBois’ Cartwheel, inspired by the real-life murder of a college student living abroad.
Cartwheel Jennifer duBois

In 2007, Seattle-native Amanda Knox did a cartwheel in an Italian police station. It was a weird thing to do for the then 20-year-old, who was being held for questioning after the murder of her study abroad roommate. It was an oddly carefree, lighthearted act that threw the already bonkers media circus around her into a frenzy. Though Knox, pegged “Foxy Knoxy” by the press, was eventually acquitted and sent back to the States (four years in jail later, mind you) the mystery and murkiness of the crime still taunts those of us prone to conspire about these kinds of things—myself and novelist Jennifer duBois included.

In Cartwheel, duBois takes us not to Europe, but to Buenos Aires, where Middlebury College student Lily Hayes toils in custody for the grizzly, sexually-charged murder of her study abroad roommate, Katy. Through chapters that alternate between the months leading up to the murder and the time leading up to the verdict—no spoilers, promise—duBois plays with our ability to create suspicions based on assumptions and stereotypes alone. Is Lily a sexxed-up maniac, driven to murder by jealousy for her roommate? Or is she a naive tourist in a politically unstable country, unfairly judged for her independence?

DuBois manages to breathe life into what could otherwise be an airport newsstand-level pageturner by getting inside the heads of the characters surrounding Lily. From her distraught family who flies in to show support, to the wealthy recluse she briefly dates, to the depressed investigator for the prosecution, duBois spends quality time with each of these fringe characters, carefully cluing us into what the case means for their present and future lives. Though these detours from the plot can sometimes seem mundane, they offer more and more insight into the relationship between Lily and Katy—and what actually happened the night of Katy’s death.

Cartwheel finds its place somewhere between the stomach-dropping cliffhangers of Gone Girl (Crown Publishing Group, 2012) and the slow burning suspense of The Secret History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); and duBois never forgets to have fun with her reader (there’s a particularly good jab at Sex and the City 2). I only wish I had known less about the Knox case, as my experience with the story felt akin to reading a book after watching the movie version. But in the end, the outcome of the plot is less important than duBois’s sign-off, which asks us to consider our darkest capabilities: While we think we know ourselves and our loved ones, there’s always the possibility that we don’t. As in the case of Knox, who is currently battling a retrial from the Italian court, there are some things we’ll never know for sure.