October 02, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Jennifer duBois
Random House
We gave it an A-

”Ripped from the headlines!” is a sell we expect from Law & Order franchises and foil-font airport paperbacks — but not, typically, from literary fiction. Cartwheel concedes up front that it is ”loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox.” And though names and details are changed, the outline is unmistakable: a beautiful exchange student brutally stabbed in her bed; an American roommate singled out as the prime suspect; a trial that becomes a media circus.

Then, of course, there’s the spectacularly ill-timed gymnastics of the title: Like Knox, fictionalized stand-in Lily Hayes thoughtlessly does a cartwheel in police custody, a move defined in the eyes of the local prosecutor — and the public — as ”callous, flippant, reflective of the same kind of bottomless disregard that could, given the right circumstances and drugs, disregard another human life.” As the narrative passes to the story’s other players, including the accused’s shell-shocked parents and her eccentric Argentinean boyfriend, a more nuanced if less conclusive portrait of Lily emerges. (In an echo of the Knox case, though, the victim remains a cipher; mostly she is just really pretty, and really dead.)

DuBois isn’t as interested in the crime as she is in her characters. A lot of what happens here is internal, and parsing the language can feel like doing wind sprints at the Vocab Olympics. (At one point, the words ”pellucid,” ”alluvial,” ”clerestories,” and ”Kantian categorical imperative” all appear on one page.) But the emotional intelligence in Cartwheel is so sharp it’s almost ruthless — a tabloid tragedy elevated to high art. A-

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