Can a deeply flawed person—an elaborate liar—be a good parent? Can he be honest? The main character of Amity Gaige’s latest novel, Schroder, is writing from jail. The narrative functions as his apology: He kidnapped his daughter, and is writing to explain himself. But that’s only the starting point of what will become a long confession of complex lies and buried memories.
The basic storyline is loosely connected to the Clark Rockefeller scandal, the German man who, for years, pretended to be a member of the Rockefeller family, and who also, quite infamously, kidnapped his daughter. Gaige read a brief AP article as the news story broke in 2008. Schroder is not a novelization of this scandal; instead, one quote from the article caught Gaige’s attention. She was interested in “a quote from Clark Rockefeller when he was apprehended…that the time with [his daughter] had been the happiest days of his life.”
This idea inspires the contradiction at the heart of Schroder: Her main character, Eric Kennedy (born Erik Schroder), has lived his life under a false name. His existence is an elaborate invention, and his credibility as a father is seriously threatened when, during a parental visitation weekend, he takes off with his daughter, Meadow, on a week-long road trip through the Northeast. Eric flees in order to preserve his role as a father and to protect his fleeting connection with his daughter, but in doing so, he compromises Meadow’s safety and their future together.
The book opens with this arresting line: “What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.” Eric has a lot to confess: In order to explain how he reached the decision to kidnap, he must start from the beginning, and explore his transition from Erik Schroder—the boy with the painful, emotionally cold childhood in East Germany—to Eric Kennedy, the confident all-American (and a distant relation to “The Kennedys”). However, this story is less about moral vindication and just punishment, and more about love. It’s about an overdue apology, and a meaningful gesture of honesty.
Gaige considers her flawed narrator to be “the sum of his successes and failures. He is both a tender and loving father at moments, but the next moment he’s a reckless and selfish person, and maybe a little deluded or desperate,” she says. “He is both those things and I realize it seems very contradictory, but a kind of contradiction inspired the book. I love how fiction can hold contradictions.” Indeed, Gaige’s narrator is the embodiment of contradiction. He is often unapologetic towards his past choices but is also desperately seeking forgiveness. Eric is inherently an unreliable narrator—but his text contains the most lucid moments of honesty of his life. He is a man ultimately forged from two worlds and two identities, attempting to somehow reconcile the two.
“I borrowed more from my own life, my own life as a parent,” Gaige says. “Not at all to implicate myself as being a parent who does risky things with my child, because I don’t. But a parent who suffers is occasionally confused, is distracted….Is it possible that I would be five or six mistakes away from being somebody like [Eric]?” Gaige says, in discussing how Schroder is really not about the Clark Rockefeller scandal, and more about the nature of parenthood. It’s easy to question Eric’s reliability as a person, to judge his morality and capability as a father. It’s harder not to talk about him as if he’s a real person, and to understand that his character—and his story—is a work of fiction. As a reader, there’s even more to consider. Eric’s apology is an attempt to resolve his fictitious past with a genuine attempt at truth, and so—even though I was reading fiction—I had to seriously contemplate what I thought to be honest.
This is “the first time in [Eric’s] life where he’s alone with himself and finally without all of his defenses,” Gaige says. This allows for the truth to form over the course of the apology, making the narrative journey all the more compelling. “The writing changes,” Gaige says. “At the beginning…he’s talking around things a fair amount. But then as he goes deeper into the telling he becomes more honest.” Gaige reveals this distinction in her writing: As Eric avoids uncomfortable subjects by telling jokes and roundabout stories, he’s actually hinting at what is most important.
Gaige says that her job as writer is not to decide whether Eric is capable of being a good parent. “I wanted to describe the contradiction rather than end up definitively on one side or the other of the question,” she explains. “Chekov said that the idea isn’t necessarily to answer a question through fiction…but rather to pose a question.” In another distinct moment of honesty, one that’s heartbreaking and resonates long after putting the book down, Eric asks: “But tell me, isn’t that what childhood is? An involuntary adventure? A kidnapping? Tell me, when did you consent to your own life?”
Chelsea Langford is the editorial coordinator at Kirkus Reviews.