According to the unconventional narrator of Amity Gaige’s third novel, one of every seven of the million or so divorces initiated in the United States each year involves a custody battle. SCHRODER is the heartbreaking story of a father’s reckless response to one of those lacerating contests. That his desperate act exposes an equally desperate lie at the heart of his own life only adds depth and texture to this engrossing novel.
The story takes the form of an extended, uninterrupted confession, what he prefers to call “an apology,” written by Eric Kennedy, former stay-at-home father and failed realtor, from his Albany, New York jail cell. He is incarcerated there for failing to return his precocious six-year-old daughter Meadow after an agreed-upon visitation, instead choosing to escort her on an offbeat, weeklong odyssey through upstate New York and New England. The law calls it an abduction, while he prefers to think of it as something “more like an adventure we both embarked upon in varying levels of ignorance and denial.”
But Eric is no ordinary father driven to legal self-immolation by the tough tactics of his wife and her ruthless lawyer, what he calls “The Opposition.” He’s an immigrant, born Erik Schroder in East Germany in 1970, who moved with his father to Massachusetts in 1979. At age 14, impulsively and without informing his father, in a summer camp application he Anglicizes his first name and assumes the surname Kennedy (“I wanted a hero’s name”), attempting somehow to associate himself with the glamour of the American political dynasty. From that point forward, his identity is defined by this fateful lie.
"SCHRODER is a beautifully told story about how a father’s undeniable love for his young child can be distorted by the pressure he experiences at the thought of being cut off from her.... Gaige’s focus on the ill-conceived decision that warps Eric’s life takes this story out of the realm of soap opera and cloaks it in the garb of tragedy."
If the bare outlines of the story sound vaguely familiar, it’s because Gaige admits it’s based on the 2008 parental abduction committed by German immigrant “Clark Rockefeller.” Beyond that acknowledged inspiration, Gaige says she drew only a single detail from the real incident, and for all the reasons that often make fiction truer than life, we can be grateful for her decision not to immerse herself too deeply in known facts.
SCHRODER is a beautifully told story about how a father’s undeniable love for his young child can be distorted by the pressure he experiences at the thought of being cut off from her. When he lifts the curtain to expose his pre-divorce life, Eric reveals himself as no worse or better than the typical parent. Yes, his decision to teach a three-year-old Meadow about death by allowing her to observe the decomposition of a dead fox over time is an odd one, but despite lapses in judgment like that and his occasional inattentiveness, there’s no mistaking his deep commitment to her. As he tells it, the frustration that drives his decidedly more conventional wife, Laura, to divorce him seems to be as much a reflection of the impossibly high standards spouses sometimes set for each other as it is of his failings.
Yet it must be said that Eric is a classic unreliable narrator, blending sharp self-awareness (“I was a dead man, appealing my own death”) with occasionally disordered thinking. By turns he is frank, self-justifying and self-pitying, offering an anguished confession that recognizes the depth of his transgression while holding out at least a sliver of hope that it’s the first step in winning Laura back. Gaige also brilliantly captures the mingled curiosity, boredom and occasional pangs of fear that a bright, inquisitive six-year-old would experience in Meadow’s circumstances, torn between the odd adventure she’s embarked on with her father and her unease at separation from her mother.
Gaige’s focus on the ill-conceived decision that warps Eric’s life takes this story out of the realm of soap opera and cloaks it in the garb of tragedy. “I knew I was no match for my own lies,” he concedes. But without either passing judgment or offering absolution, she presents a sympathetic, rounded portrait of her complex protagonist, especially as she seasons it with flashbacks to his early life. There are moving glimpses of Eric’s childhood in Germany on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Those traumatic years are followed by equally difficult ones in a three-story tenement in Dorchester, Massachusetts, his father cold and distant and his mother left behind in Germany.
In the end, Eric understands the gravity of the mistakes that have dogged him and offers this moving explanation-cum-justification of his misguided choices: “I guess I need a life that I could revise. If I had just accepted the one life, my first life, I would have honored its limits. I would have lived quietly, hardly even dreaming.”
That wistful recognition exposes a truth that lies at the core of our common humanity: we all are destined to fall short of our expectations, to fail to match our lovingly painted self-portraits, some of us more dramatically and tragically than others. It’s but one of many penetrating insights that transport Amity Gaige’s novel from the realm of mere artifice to the status of real art.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 7, 2013