by BRAD ROLLINS
Texas State English lecturer Jennifer duBois clearly has the wherewithal to be a serious writer, perhaps an important one. If her recently published second novel is as flawed as a handful of critics think, she would not be the first author to fall flat in her sophomore effort.
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Her literary debut, “A Partial History of Lost Causes,” garnered high praise — and lengthy write-ups — by tastemakers like the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. Just last month, duBois won the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award, given each year to 10 young American authors deemed to possess “exceptional talent and promise in early career.”
“You write a novel in an isolation chamber and when it’s published you feel like only four people read it. To have something like this come through offers a reassurance,” duBois was quoted as saying after winning the Whiting.
One wonders if duBois will need the reassurance proffered by the Whiting selection committee as she reads the sometimes lackluster reviews of “Cartwheel,” her second published novel.
duBois acknowledges that the book “draws inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox,” the American student currently being tried a second time for the 2009 murder of her British roommate in Italy. Whether duBois draws too much inspiration from the Knox case seems to occupy the minds of major book critics.
“Why follow the exact machinations of the given legal case (false accusation of a bar owner, DNA on a bra clasp) when something yet more fictionally explosive was easily in the reach of a writer as talented as DuBois?” Amity Gaige writes in the New York Times Review of Books.
To be fair, Gaige’s critique of “Cartwheel” is generally positive, calling the book “electric, fine-tuned, intelligent, conflicted. The novel is engrossing, and its portraiture hits delightfully and necessarily close to home.”
And the book has been far from universally panned. In the New York Journal of Books, for example, A.J. Kirby describes it “an astonishing, breathtaking, and harrowing read.”
Others are not so generous. A sample:
This kind of precise, detail-oriented writing is the shibboleth of contemporary fiction, the mark of a novelist’s seriousness. … Such skillfulness here will convince many readers that “Cartwheel” is a good novel; alas, it is not. The book’s writing may be excellent, but it’s a bloodless excellence. DuBois’ characters and their narrative are never enlivened by the vitality that belongs to real life.
Then there’s its subject.
“The secret to creativity,” said Albert Einstein, “is knowing how to hide your sources.” By those lights “Cartwheel” is not a creative book, because it’s a more or less unaltered fictionalization of the case of Amanda Knox.
While duBois (A Partial History of Lost Causes) clearly has the authorial chops to illustrate complex characters, Cartwheel remains flat partly because she seems more focused on avoiding right answers or easy sympathy than creating characters who are more than moral specimens. While muddying the waters of right and wrong is almost always a valiant cause in literature, this novel reads more like an intellectual exercise in examining all the different angles rather than an emotional engagement with human beings.
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Cartwheel cribs so many details from the much-publicized 2007 case of Amanda Knox that it’s hard to assess author Jennifer duBois’ work as a stand-alone piece of fiction. …
The novel is suspenseful, told in non-linear style, but character development is lacking. Katy, the murder victim, is particularly thinly drawn. The book hints that popular and beautiful Katy had a secret wild side, but this fairly crucial plot point is never pursued.
…Written in a straightforward style, Cartwheel can be harrowing. It has elements of a haunting page turner. But it’s hard to separate genuine intrigue from salacious topicality.