In the vein of Gone Girl and The Dinner, we have yet another novel with a narrator whose reliability is questionable. In Schroder, it’s not so much that the narrator is knowingly deceptive to the reader. It’s that most of the narrator’s life has been a lie, and as a result, the reader might be dubious about his reliability in explaining himself and the accusations against him. Erik’s is the only point of view presented here and while it might be tempting to peg him as a selfish, thoughtless scoundrel, the letter that he writes to his wife reveals a more complex, flawed person.
The conceit is that Erik Kennedy is writing to his estranged wife to explain himself. He has kidnapped their daughter and been exposed as a fraud. He is not a Kennedy at all but a German emigre named Erik Schroder who fled East Berlin with his father in his childhood and then moved to Boston. Young Erik, in applying to summer camp, created a new persona for himself and then completely assimilated it. Things unravel after Erik marries and his marriage falls apart for reasons that he does not understand.
Erik is a translator/scholar whose personal research deals with silences. This makes perfect sense for someone who comes from life under an authoritarian regime and who then must hide his personal truth in order to maintain his preferred fictional life. Erik has no strong sense of self though, no context to share with others such as his wife and child. His desire to assimilate makes Erik too willing to change his identity. He writes that when he met his wife and fell in love, “How quickly I dropped all other commitments, all other friendships, clubs, and interests.” He also eventually put aside his research to work in real estate for his father-in-law.
Most of the narrative follows the week that Erik and daughter Meadow are on the run and the things they did — driving to upstate New York, swimming, eating junk food, taking up with another drifter named April. Erik seems to be slowly working toward his past and is perhaps going to share it with his 6-year-old daughter when present day reality starts to catch up to the pair. Erik seems to understand that he will eventually get caught, but he doesn’t understand what the ultimate repercussions will be. “Maybe this was just the imprinting of my childhood’s apparat, but it seemed to me that if you scratched anybody deep enough, you’d reveal some criminality…. And so I had believed — right up to the moment when I saw myself on TV — that I had not ‘kidnapped’ Meadow but that I was merely very, very late to return her from an agreed-upon visit.”
Erik comes across as a sympathetic and exasperating character. He doesn’t make his wife out to be a bad guy and clearly deeply loves both her and Meadow. He simply doesn’t understand why things have turned out so badly, why his perfect life is falling apart. He doesn’t understand his own role in it but sees that he is losing them all. Gaige mixes revelations about Erik’s past in with the present-day story, which makes Erik’s story sadder but certainly not excusable. All in all, an interesting story about memory, identity and sins of omission.