Having read Amity Gaige's previous two books, I anticipated the beauty of her latest novel, Schroder. What I didn't anticipate was the weightiness of it, her ability to take the slightest moments and the lightest phrases and mold them into matters of great consequence. I also enjoyed Gaige's more substantial plot: this novel, though still quite literary, has the suspense and forward action that were sometimes lacking in her previous two books.
The title, with a bit of irony, refers to the main character, father to six-year-old Meadow, a man living under the alias Eric Kennedy. Not long after his childhood arrival in the United States with his father, Erik Schroder decides to shed his German skin, his German history, and most obviously, his German name to become an American - and not just any American, an American with a most enviable last name. Eric's fantasy life quickly becomes his reality. The altered past he dreams of is so real that it seems to fill in his backstory automatically, all too easily erasing the pain of being separated from his mother and his discomfort with his blatantly foreign father. As happens so often in life, things change when Eric falls in love. He carries his fraud too far and marries a woman named Laura, lending his false last name to her and soon after to his daughter.
All is well for a while and Eric even begins to revel in his new role as stay-at-home dad during Meadow's third year. But when marital trouble creeps into the family and divorce comes, Eric begins to lose both his battle with his identity and his desperate fight to maintain access to his daughter. Then one day in the heat of a custody dispute turned nasty, Eric does what comes naturally, but certainly not logically - he turns a parental visit into a wild, seven-day road trip with his daughter, an act of kidnapping that eventually exposes him as Erik Schroder and drastically affects his relationship with his beloved daughter. When his assumed name and life are discovered, what started as a childish coping method turns into evidence of his perceived unfitness as a parent. Even though the factual German immigrant Erik Schroder feels to him much less like his true self than the fabricated American Eric Kennedy, the rest of the world cannot help but assign more sinister motives for his double life.
Schroder is written in the form of Eric's confession, complete with his sometimes discursive footnotes. Gaige's choice to tell the story entirely in his voice makes for interesting reading. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator and, as such, the reader is left, at times, to deduce whether he is leaving parts out or exaggerating others. And this confession is addressed directly to his wife, which we also must assume colors his words. This singular, distressed narrator is most convincing, however, when his words turn to Meadow and her part in the convoluted trip. Eric seems most truthful when he recounts his daughter's reactions to events and people, and here Gaige's elegant prose shines in Eric's eccentric and hyper-intellectual mind as he describes this daughter that he adores and craves. While the narrative is structured around the seven days father and daughter share on the run, Eric uses this record of the recent past to also reveal his full history to his wife.
Schroder is a book that will appeal to lovers of quiet fiction, to readers who appreciate beautiful prose and don't require brisk action to keep them turning pages. Gaige's lyrical, literary style still places her in this broad category, though this novel is certainly the most active of her three. This story will particularly resonate with parent readers, people like me who wonder every day if they are doing okay as a mom or dad, who struggle and rejoice in the most significant of responsibilities. Eric's questionable choices are laid out for us to see, yet it is doubtful that many will question his love for Meadow. Though his devotion devolves into selfishness, readers will recognize a father's intense love as it has been crafted in Gaige's subtle literary beauty.
This review was originally published in February 2013, and has been updated for the October 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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