"Cartwheel" by Jennifer duBois (Random House, September 2013).

"Cartwheel" by Jennifer duBois (Random House, September 2013). Credit: Handout

CARTWHEEL, by Jennifer duBois. Random House, 368 pp., $26.

Before she quotes Vladimir Nabokov, before she dedicates her new book to partner Justin Perry, novelist Jennifer duBois issues a disclaimer: "Cartwheel" is "entirely a work of fiction."

Its themes, she allows, "were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox," the American exchange student convicted in 2009 of killing her English roommate in Italy. Turns out that many a fact lines up neatly, too.

Still, "Cartwheel" is so sure-footed and psychologically calibrated that the reader quickly loses track of the parallels. Amanda Knox was accused by police of turning a cartwheel while waiting for questioning; this novel's protagonist, Lily Hayes, actually does. The story opens as her father, Andrew, flies into Buenos Aires to face police who suspect that 21-year-old Lily has knifed her study-abroad roommate to death.

"Andrew had worried about Lily constantly," duBois writes. He "worried about her being kidnapped, trafficked, impregnated, sexually assaulted, afflicted with some horrible STD, arrested for marijuana use, converted to Catholicism, wooed by a long-lashed man with a Vespa."

DuBois' topic is serious, her touch often droll. Andrew, divorced from Lily's mother, joins her to send Lily off to South America with an industrial-size box of condoms. The parents see this gesture as brave and mature; Lily experiences it as "appalling, mortifying," a box meant "for cults, maybe, or university women's centers."

Reviewers of duBois' first novel, "A Partial History of Lost Causes," called it brainy and beautiful, a verdict that fits this successor. It flirts with overheating, almost trapping readers in a hothouse of American privilege.

"Cartwheel" rotates fluidly among perspectives. Best perhaps is that of prosecutor Eduardo Campos, a meticulous, observant depressive, left by a wife who reminds him more than a little of Lily. He looks at the photos on Lily's camera and sees cold indifference; Andrew looks at the same shots and his "heart broke on their banality."

Lily's younger sister Anne, a long-distance runner at Colby College, has a full quiver of ambivalence and sibling grievance, and duBois makes marvelous use of them. Sure, grade-school Lily once tortured a slug, but can that be as ominous as drowning kittens? Certainly Lily unsettled her host mother, but how much of this was cultural? What to make of the incident in which Lily -- still an anonymous American -- is spat upon by an Argentine stranger?

DuBois walks the knife's edge of plausibility as the prosecutor builds his case and Lily's family rallies to undo it. As the pages fly, the reader hardly notices that DuBois has stretched the genre of the criminal procedural. The limberness is welcome, indeed.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review inacurately described the circumstances surrounding Amanda Knox' s reported cartwheel.

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