Sunday, April 7, 2013

Book Review: "Schroder: A Novel" by Amity Gaige

Eric Kennedy (maybe a distant cousin of those Kennedys) grew up in a small Massachusetts town, not far from Hyannis Port, and had a perfectly idyllic New England childhood. He met the love of his life, Laura, when she was helping a young boy who had fallen out of a tree and broke his wrist, and the two had a loving, passionate relationship, culminating in the birth of their daughter, Meadow. And while Eric wasn't always the most traditional father, he doted on Meadow, allowing her to pursue whatever adventures and ask whatever questions she wanted, and if sometimes that meant taking Meadow to an AA meeting (in support of a friend) or keeping a decomposing fox nearby so she understood the process, he did it all in love.

When Eric and Laura's marriage goes sour and the two separate, Eric is still so much in love with Laura he willingly allows her to become Meadow's main custodial parent, because he thinks his willingness to do what Laura wants will win her back. But it leaves him with visits with Meadow on alternate weekends and periodic Wednesdays, which starts to chafe him after a while, so he does what any good parent should do—try and fight for his daughter. And when he finds that fight hampered by a poor evaluation from a child custody expert, and his words and actions are turned against him, he finds himself left with no choice. One day, he and Meadow embark on a road trip—but they don't come back. They flee Albany headed for Canada, but wind up holed up in a cabin on Lake Champlain, and then continuing to flee the authorities for a few days.

In a letter to Laura, Eric looks back on his life, his actions, his love for both his daughter and his estranged wife, and his childhood. And it is in this confessional diatribe that Eric reveals a key fact: Eric Kennedy isn't a real person, nor is the Massachusetts town he says he grew up in. He's actually Erik Schroder, a West German illegal emigree, who fled to the U.S. with his father when he was seven, and grew up poor in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He changed his name as a teenager and never really looked back on that part of his life.

I felt that this story had a great deal of promise—a father's impulsive but deep love for his daughter, a man's invented identity, a life lived on the lam—but it never hooked me. Part of the reason for this is because while you can be sympathetic to Eric's motives, he is a generally unsympathetic character. His confessional letter to Laura is filled with declarations of love and explanations of his actions, from falsifying his identity to kidnapping his daughter, but it also contains a tremendous number of non-sequiturs on German history, Eric's "research" (on the famous pauses in history, moments when nothing really happened), and other items that failed to catch my attention. And Laura remains a shadowy character on the margin of the story; you're left to surmise how she feels and reacts but you never see it.

There was a lot packed into this book of under 300 pages, and the story never flowed for me. In the end, I didn't care what happened to Eric, and I just wanted his journey—both real and figurative—to end.

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