At the heart of Amity Gaige’s novel Schroder lies the seductive, doomed nature of parental love. 

Reviewed by Rand Richards Cooper ’80

[Fiction] Amity Gaige’s Schroder (Hachette) was inspired by the notorious case of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German sociopath who impersonated a Rockefeller in order to weasel his way into the precincts of the rich, marry them, steal their money and murder some of them along the way. His undoing came when he abducted his daughter during a custody dispute; in an interview appended to the novel, Gaige notes that “this con man was by many accounts a loving father, and he called the days with his daughter ‘the best days’ of his life.” From this paradox Gaige has concocted a curious literary bait-and-switch, a novel that looks at first like pop melodrama and then becomes something far more subtle.

Cast as a court-ordered confession addressed by the incarcerated Schroder to his wife, Laura, the novel gives its protagonist free rein to tell his story as he pleases. “If it were just the two of us again, sitting together at the kitchen table late at night,” he muses, “I would probably just call this document an apology.” Not merely a personal apology, then, but an apologia—pro vita sua, as the first chapter announces. What unfolds raises a fundamental question: Is Schroder’s life “a fraudulent, distorted, spurious, crooked, desperate fiction,” or “the truest thing I had ever written”?

The making-up of a self is writ large in American life and literature and constitutes a theme playable for tragic grandeur, à la Gatsby, or for lurid farce, à la Gerhartsreiter. Gaige opts for something else: sympathy. Her protagonist recounts how, as a child recently arrived in Boston from Berlin with his immigrant father, he decided to “fall asleep as one boy and wake up the next day a totally different one.” And so Erik Schroder seizes a hallowed Boston name and becomes Eric Kennedy. His life proceeds through college, marriage and a job with his new father-in-law. Gaige implies that the modus operandi of the pathological liar parallels that of young people generally, whose tentative forays into adulthood include the sundry acts of construction involved in fashioning a self. “I was like any other young man,” Schroder/Kennedy reflects, “trying to appear more interesting than I was.”

Schroder is an extraordinarily sympathetic rendering of a pathological liar. Schroder evinces an apparent capacity for authentic love of his wife. He dotes on his daughter and experiences agonizing presentiments of losing her. The scenes on the road, after he abducts her (he tells her they’re just taking a trip), are full of father-daughter high jinks, as when the two push through crowds in Boston’s Public Garden, shouting “Pardon me, excuse me, camel behind you!”   

Much of this novel is conveyed, somewhat claustrophobically, through indirect narrative, summary and paraphrase, with relatively few scenes. That’s too bad, because Gaige has a terrific ear for dialogue, as when Schroder/Kennedy consults a divorce lawyer who counsels him thus:

“Do you know, Eric, that spouses who initiate divorce often think of the divorce as a ‘growth experience’? They even show better immune function. But you—the spouse who stuck around, the loyal one…? You get left holding the bag. Your divorce could make you sick.”

“It has!” I cried. “I’ve had bronchitis for months.”

Not quite believably, Schroder turns out to have labored in the scholarly field of “silence studies,” reflecting his interest in “moments in history when nothing was happening, producing a significant insignificance.” Significant insignificance: the concept provides a key both to Gaige’s narrative procedures and to her vision of the blissed-out joys of parenthood. Her novel is drenched in regret at the passage of time and its undoing of family love. Schroder laments the fate of parents who become “damaged” by divorce. One listens with caution to pronouncements on mental health from a liar and kidnapper. But when he notes that the “one thing that really deranges us ... is the disappearance of love,” we sense that he is speaking for the author. At the heart of this novel lies the seductive, doomed nature of parental love. How rapturous, and how temporary. In this regard, Gaige implies, all parents are desperadoes on the run. “I knew time was running out,” Schroder says. And so it always is.

Cooper is a fiction writer and essayist.

Photo by Anita Licis-Ribak