- Amity Gaige
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Rimas Blekaitis
- March 26, 2013
A father’s desperate act amidst a fierce custody battle reveals his decades-long lie.
In this, her third novel, Amity Gaige creates a fascinating titular character and channels his imaginative, intelligent and off-kilter voice perfectly. Schroder has gone on what he calls a road trip with his daughter Meadow. His ex-wife, Laura, like everyone else, calls it an abduction. Once caught, he takes a vow of silence, broken only to write the letter which is the text of the novel, an apologia to explain the reasons for his actions. If only Laura understands him, she may forgive him, may allow him to be fully Meadow’s father again. But it had better be a convincing apologia for, as it turns out, he is literally not the man, Eric Kennedy, she thought she had married.
What follows, all of it within that letter, is the unspooling of two stories, each rich and complex enough to carry most novels by themselves. Gaige, by choosing what to reveal and when, skillfully links the stories into a kind of double-helix: a single, gripping and heartrending tale bound by its themes of identity, memory and silence. There was once a German boy, Eric Schroder, who came to America and decided there was no future in the mute life of “half-suicide” his father had chosen as a refugee. When Eric applied, without his father’s knowing, for a scholarship to a prestigious youth camp, he cheekily stated his name as Eric Kennedy. Although some would see it as “a fraudulent, distorted, spurious, crooked, desperate fiction,” Schroder-as-narrator insists it is “the truest thing I had ever written,” for in it he wrote of “the burdens of history, an early loss of the mother, a baseless sense of personal responsibility, and dauntless hope for the future.”
The fabrication, including the imagined childhood of Eric Kennedy in the fictional town of Twelve Hills on the Cape, worked better than he could have imagined: he got into the camp and then used connections made there to get into college and grad school. How was he able to get away with this lie? “It was 1984. There were no technologies for omniscience then. Nobody wanted them.”
Once Schroder committed to being “Kennedy” there was no room in his life for his father. Eric had vanished from the silent man’s life altogether by the time he has met his future wife, a luminous American beauty. Would he at least tell her of his secret past? Having learned from her hard-charging, successful father that the American secret was “that the only person who could obstruct a man was himself,” Schroder decided instead to rededicate himself to the deceit: “On the final morning of their honeymoon, he watched the children on the beach, and he watched his bride watch the children, and he thought, No, I will not tell you. I will never tell you. I’ll cut out my tongue first. Then he pointed into the distance. ‘Hey Laura,’ he said. ‘Look over there, at that old lighthouse. There was one just like that outside of Twelve Hills ... ‘”
As the letter continues, the second story, the present moment action Gaige uses to propel the reader through the novel, is recounted: the road trip Eric Kennedy né Schroder takes with his daughter. Is it a premeditated abduction? Gaige refuses to decide for the reader.
Schroder and Meadow have liminal moments in the icy waters of Lake George and in wild meadows at Grand Isle. There is an episode with the aging muse of a long-forgotten songwriter that has the feel of a fable. And Meadow shows how gifted and wise a child she is, wise enough to understand her father’s life is disintegrating, and compassionate enough, at his lowest moments, to simply hold his hand, perhaps knowing he won’t get the chance again. Gaige colors our sympathies for Schroder by suggesting he’s not quite as loving the father as he thinks. He gives Meadow candy from a vending machine and pronounces it dinner. He flirts with a young mother on the beach at Lake George while his daughter literally gets into deep water. And there is worse to come.
And yet, one doesn’t doubt his love for Meadow. He broods over what having him as her father will do to her when she’s grown up, how she will never be comfortable “with the main army.” Late, as he finds they are the target of a manhunt, Schroder hits on the perfect destination for their trip: a visit to his long-forgotten father in Dorchester. If he can just make it, this might allow Eric to reconcile his two lives and allow his daughter to know the origins of her real last name.
Throughout this excellent novel, Gaige has her narrator ruminate on identity, memory and silence. These themes bounce off the walls of Schroder’s two lives and gather power until finally, as we learn more about what he and his father both lost, they are allowed to hit with moving effect. Gaige does a superb job of guiding the reader into the nuances of her story, exploiting the epistolary form to get inside the mind of her protagonist without losing control of the story. Giving her novel the title “Schroder” (it could as easily have been titled for the road trip or abduction) is one of Gaige’s many inspired choices: it directs us to see where the story really is. Best of all, Gaige finishes not by giving us an easy or complete ending, but rather something much more satisfying — an ending commensurate with the novel’s promise and her characters’ complexities.
Rimas Blekaitis lives in Washington, D.C. and reads and writes wherever he finds himself. He recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.