In "Schroder," Amity Gaige's terrific third novel, we witness the spectacular unraveling of a fabricated life, an identity created out of whole cloth and woven with lies so facile that they delude even the liar himself. Daringly conceived and beautifully written, the book prompts us to re-examine our understanding of personal identity, love and the resilient bond between a parent and child.
The entire narrative consists of a document written by Eric Kennedy to his ex-wife Laura, penned while in prison on charges of kidnapping his 6-year-old daughter, Meadow. His court-appointed lawyer has suggested that recounting everything that happened during their seven-day "road trip" might be helpful in getting the charges reduced to "custodial interference." Eric seizes the opportunity to present his Apologia Pro Vita Sua -- a defense of his whole life, a confession and apology, and above all a love letter to both his wife and daughter.
For the first time, Eric tells Laura how, at age 14, he "had chosen my own childhood." Born Erik Schroder in 1970 in East Berlin, he and his father fled to West Berlin when Erik was 5, without his mother. The two eventually settled in a tough Boston neighborhood, the son struggling to become "a real American," the silent and solitary father rejecting opportunities to embrace a new life. While applying for a scholarship to summer camp, Erik decides to assume a new name, complete with an appropriate back story. Coming from Berlin and living in Boston, it was not difficult to choose a hero's surname, and Eric Kennedy from Twelve Hills, "not far from Hyannis Port," was born; he would come to life during the three summers spent at camp .
By Amity Gaige.
Securing admission to a distant college (with helpful recommendations from people at the camp, along with a series of forged documents), Eric was able to fully establish his new identity, distancing himself even further from his father in order to maintain the charade. After graduation ("I commenced alone"), he settles in Albany, marries Laura and has a child.
It is through Eric's increasingly erratic and reckless interactions with his daughter that we see how his made-up life reflects his own emotional injuries. Eric adores his very bright, stoic daughter who, though wise beyond her years (and occasionally beyond belief), implicitly trusts and loves her father. It falls to Laura to question the wisdom, or sanity, of having a 3-year-old track the decomposition of a dead fox in their backyard (the incident to be known as The Final Straw). Despite the self-serving narration, we come to understand Laura's loneliness, unhappiness and growing suspicions
Once the couple separates, contentious battles over custody and visitation rights leave Eric with ever-shrinking opportunities to see his daughter. During one of their rare visits, Eric takes Meadow on the "adventure we both embarked on in varying levels of ignorance and denial." One reckless decision follows another during a junk food-fueled week on the road, ending in a dramatic and heart-wrenching climax.
The author has said the idea for the book was sparked by the story of Clark Rockefeller, a German con man who appropriated the Rockefeller name and, after his fake life unraveled, kidnapped his daughter in Boston in 2008. When apprehended, he called the days alone with his daughter "the best days" of his life, a sentiment echoed in Eric's post-arrest note to his daughter (in German) telling her that "this was the best part of my life." However, "Schroder" is not a fictionalized account of the Clark Rockefeller case; it is a layered, sensitive meditation on what it means to be a loving parent, even in the face of deep, debilitating flaws.
Ms. Gaige set herself a significant structural challenge in this book, and for the most part surmounts it and converts it into an asset. Eric's non-linear, confessional document gives us the most unreliable narrator possible. The author does a wonderful job of conveying the downward spiral of irrational behavior through Eric's rationalizations.
Occasionally, though, the narrative device proves too constraining, especially when presenting extended dialogue, and we don't believe that this is a letter to Laura. The format also means that Laura's perspective is missing, and we know her only through her reactions to situations. Nevertheless, Ms. Gaige's great accomplishment is to make us feel the sadness and hurt of all three members of the family through Eric's words and his struggle to at last tell the truth -- or at least some truths.
"Schroder" grabs you early on, holds you with its lyrical prose and surprising insights and lingers in the mind long afterward.
Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (email@example.com).