There are passages of observation so closely controlled and beautiful in "Cartwheel," the second novel by Jennifer duBois, that what she describes seems as if it will stay described for good. Of a Boston train station, she writes that "the clean sheets of light falling through the window always felt somehow Atlantic, oceanic, and the ashen seagulls outside made smudges against the concrete and sky." Or, here is the superbly generic individualism of the Facebook page of Lily Hayes, the book's central character: "a Molière quote, a variety of subsexual poses, a loving catalog of reasonably challenging fiction."
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This kind of precise, detail-oriented writing is the shibboleth of contemporary fiction, the mark of a novelist's seriousness. (John Updike, though in many respects his reputation has gone into eclipse, has in this regard never been more influential.) 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, the young American woman who, while studying abroad, was arrested and tried for the murder of her housemate. It's true that the story is set in Argentina, rather than Italy, but otherwise there's little difference between Knox's case and that of Lily Hayes, who begins the novel in a Buenos Aires jail, suspected of stabbing to death her roommate, Katy Kellers. The media speculation is that the reason for this violent act was the duplicity of Sebastien LeCompte, Lily's boyfriend and possibly also Katy's lover.
DuBois assembles Amanda Knox's story — Lily's story — from a variety of perspectives, covering the time both before and after the murder. There are Lily's father and sister, who have come to Buenos Aires to be with her; there's Lily herself; and there are two men obsessed with her. The first of these is Sebastien, who is handsome and "wealthy beyond imagining" but seemingly determined to prove that's not as much fun as it sounds, because he's still so depressed by the death of his parents. The second is Eduardo Campos, an Argentine prosecutor with a rigid sense of criminal guilt. His perception of Lily may be influenced by his relationship with Maria, a soured version of the manic pixie dream girl, who says things like, "I dreamed you turned into a flower and I forgot to water you and you died." Well, then!
Many male novelists have been accused, with justice, of writing female characters badly; duBois writes male characters badly. Both Sebastien and Eduardo seem like stick figures embroidered with an overabundance of human traits in the hope that it's enough to make them sympathetic. Even duBois' generally faultless writing cracks when she writes about these two men, as if she can't quite touch them with her mind. An example: "Sebastien felt his broken and rococo heart crawling out to Lily Hayes, throwing itself around her in joy and relief, but why?" This is a far cry from the grace of which duBois is capable.
Fortunately, duBois does write young women — her truest subject, and perhaps what drew her to Knox's case — exceedingly well. The most effective character in the book is Lily herself, whose averageness is touching, a college student "a little less than conventionally gorgeous, a little more than conventionally bright," eager to experience the banal epiphanies of a term abroad. The book's most vibrant scenes are the ones showing the halting friendship between Lily and the doomed Katy, who is the less narcissistic, more mature of the two.
If she is immature and perhaps narcissistic, though, could Lily be guilty? It never seems quite possible. She's young and oblivious, to be sure, but never has the edge of madness that could force a reader to believe that she might have done it.
That brings us around again to Amanda Knox. It's considered middlebrow to question a writer's sources — Shakespeare was more or less a plagiarist — but after a time there comes to seem something lurid and dispiriting in this genteel expropriation of tragedy. A real person, Meredith Kercher, died horribly in the incident upon which "Cartwheel" is based. If duBois had used her death to create a work of feeling and imagination, it might have deepened our comprehension of how such a catastrophe can take place.
Instead, it seems like cool calculation. The Knox story has been big business all along, and duBois in this novel uses it as a vehicle to show her ambition, her gifts — except that at the moment both that ambition and those gifts outpace another essential novelist's trait: empathy.
Charles Finch is a writer based in Chicago. His first literary novel, "The Last Enchantments," will be published in January by St. Martin's Press.
By Jennifer duBois, Random House, 384 pages, $26Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun