Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

25 July, 2013 Reviews 12 comments

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel ShriverWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Series: Standalone
Published by Counterpoint Press on 25th March 2003
Pages: 400
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Amazon Good BooksBook Depository

Eva never really wanted to be a mother, and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday.

Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin.  Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

This book is awful.

And I don’t mean that in terms of quality.  This is a well-constructed and well-written piece of literature.  It is thoroughly engrossing and near-impossible to put down.

It certainly is an engaging novel, but for all of the wrong reasons.  It isn’t funny.  It isn’t heartwarming.  And it certainly isn’t easy to relate to, at least for me.

The majority of my experience with We Need to Talk About Kevin consisted of me alternating between wanting to scream in frustration and wanting to bawl my eyes out.  90% of the story is heartbreaking, disturbing, ugly and bitter.  The remaining 10% is made up of sparse vignettes, sweet and touching, that are substantially marred by the knowledge that they’ll be ruined and transformed into tragedies within pages.

Presented as a series of letters, this is the story of Eva Khatchadourian, who is struggling to hold the remnants of her life together after her son is sentenced to prison for killing several of his classmates in a school shooting.  Writing to her estranged husband, she explores the events that led up to Thursday, as she now calls the infamous afternoon, starting as far back as the couple’s decision to have a child.

This brings up an interesting aspect of the book: very little of the novel is devoted to the shooting itself.  The event is there, but it only occurs at the very end of the narrative, and consists of only a few dozen pages.  The bulk of the story is an analysis of the boy from infancy to adolescence, with small references appearing occasionally to hint at the coming tragedy.  This approach works beautifully – the reader experiences a very slow, but insistent, buildup of dread, and it begins at the very first page.  By the time one actually encounters Thursday, it isn’t particularly shocking (we’ve expected it from the beginning, after all), yet this fact does nothing to deter the impact it has.  It’s still brutal and horrific, despite everything, and that’s what makes it so powerful.

Kevin’s characterization is a monstrous and weighty thing, and it’s difficult to come to a definitive opinion when it concerns his role in all of this.  He is portrayed as being a problematic and worrisome child from the moment he is born.  Eva feels no maternal instinct or love for the infant when she holds him for the first time, and Kevin staunchly refuses to accept her attempts to feed him from her breast.  What follows is a reoccurring theme throughout the novel’s entirety: the divisive effect that the boy has upon his parents.  Whereas her husband dotes on Kevin, Eva resents her son from the onset.  It isn’t particularly hard to see why, as Kevin behaves differently when he is amongst each authority figure.  With his father, Kevin epitomizes a typical, rambunctious son, eager to bond with his dad and explore the world.  The moment he is alone with his mother, however, he becomes defiant and apathetic, manipulative and cruel.  Eva’s response to this is consequently seen as uncaring and sick in the eyes of her husband, who fails to see any sort of abnormality in his perfect little boy.

Which introduces my biggest problem with this book: barring his “good boy” act, Kevin is a rather one-dimensional character.  His decision to massacre comes as no surprise not only because of the continuous hinting at the event, but because his personality points to the action as an inevitability.  He is the same malicious brat at the end of the story as he is at its beginning.  It’s tempting to label his personification as a weak one, unchanging and straightforward as it is.  He is simply a villain, a caricature with no other sides.  And there is no explanation of why he is like this.  He was, it seems, simply born that way.  It almost feels as though the author is cheating, using the easy “it just is” explanation instead of attempting to take the time to develop a believable alternative.

Yet, I hesitate to label this as a flaw, because who’s to say people like this don’t exist?  As Eva points out, instances of violence carried out by minors are events that we do our best to rationalize and explain.  There is always a why that seems to pass the blame for the child’s behavior to another.  They were bullied in school.  They were neglected or mistreated by their parents.  Their teachers were ignorant and did not see the signs.  And so on.

But this book makes a fascinating, and ominous, point: What if there is no real reason?  What if there is no way to prevent something like this from happening?  This idea is what prevents me from outright declaring Kevin’s characterization as underdeveloped or lacking, because the simplicity of his malice consequently appears to be a purposeful detail used to make a point.  I certainly don’t know people like this, but this means nothing in the larger context.  It’s ignorant to assume that because I have no personal experience within this area, it cannot (and does not) exist. I’d certainly like to think so, but the simple fact of not knowing is chilling.

Eva, at numerous points, also references other school shootings that occur within the time frame of her narrative.  The implication of this storytelling technique did little to me until about halfway through the novel, at which point I realized that they were all real instances of violence within the American educational system.  And this is truly frightening, because there are so many of them.  Eva’s brief recounting of each event subsequently became a sort of spiritual blow.  To be honest, I had a lot of trouble viewing humanity in a positive light after finishing the story.  This book is filled with so much ugliness, both real and imaginary, that it leaves one shaken.

And, yet, Eva closes her tale with a sentimental moment that, despite the sheer horror that the end of her account proves to be (due in no small part to how unpredictable it turns out to be, despite everything), manages to be both touching and bittersweet.  It ends the novel on such a powerful note that you may very well end up in tears, if you haven’t already.


To Conclude… 

It may not be an enjoyable reading experience, but I believe that We Need to Talk About Kevin is an important one.  It truly makes you think about the issues that tend to be so hotly debated the world over: gun control, public education, the role of the parental figure, adolescent-centered violence.  It forces you to rethink your preconceived notions on school shootings and acts of a similar nature, and encourages alternative interpretations of, and responses toward, those involved in such incidents.

Throw in Shriver’s excellent writing (though she does tend to go overboard with the extravagant language – a dictionary is recommended when attempting this one), and you have a haunting piece of literature that could arguably be labeled as “necessary reading.”  You may not enjoy it, but you will see things differently afterwards, and that’s exactly what a good book should do.

Paul Beimers

Paul Beimers

Reviewer at Cuddlebuggery
A reviewer, blogger and trope enthusiast who isn't nearly as consistent with his reading as he should be.

12 Responses to “Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver”

  1. Steph Sinclair

    Wow. What a book. I think I’ll be adding this one to my pile because these sort of books fascinate me. And the way the narritive is told– from his birth, leading up to the event– wow. So often when we hear of these tragidies on the news, we’re really only given bits and pieces of who a person was before. And you’re right. Society does struggle to piece together the whys and what ifs, but we can really never know. Really brilliant review, Paul.
    P.S. This book’s narritive sounds similar to another book I read recently: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. It’s about a boy who plans to kills his former best friend and himself. It’s narrated by him as he attempts to say goodbye to a few strange friends of his. I think you might enjoy it.

  2. AnimeGirlAlex

    I’m a bit on the fence about this book. 
    I don’t enjoy books like this but I think it has the potential to be really thought provoking. And I remember seeing the trailers for the film and that it looked really interesting.

  3. lectus

    I bought this book at the airport to read it during a flight. I found it horrible, like you, but kept reading because the subject is an important one.
    Then we landed and I forgot the damn book on the plane! I was upset and relieved at the same time: i didn’t have to keep reading it, but I wanted to know the end. So I watched the movie and loved it.
    As you mentioned, what if someone is evil just because? Because you are born that way?
    I hated the writing style and the fancy words used. I don’t know if at the end the book conveys the same meaning that the movie did, but this is a topic worth…. exploring. I recommend the movie instead.

  4. alexiareads

    I really want to read this one.As weird as it sounds, I relish books like this.I think it has potential to be interesting and make me think about stuff.

  5. hellbenttoread

    I instantly added this to my to-read shelf on GR as soon as I finished reading your review. This sounds like such a painful read, but definitely worth it. If I’m not mistaken, there was a movie adaptation of this, yes?

  6. VictoriaScottYA

    OMG! Fun fact about this book! This author was debating having a child with her husband, and so she wrote this book freestyle as an exploration on how she felt. After she finished the book, she decided not to have children.

  7. Fangs4Fantasy

    I’ve read books like this and never know where to jump with them
    On the one had they’re artful, incredibly well crafted, well written, emotional, powerful and truly magnificent. On the other, they’re not exactly fun to read and leave you feel almost beaten up by the time you’ve finished. Awesome books, but definitely not light reading

  8. LynnM

    I haven’t read this book, but I wonder at your wonder over why a reason isn’t given as to why Kevin does what he does. I have to think that it’s fairly simple – he’s a psychopath, that he suffers a mental dysfunction/abnormality that was present at birth and causes him to be incapable of feeling empathy towards any human at all. If you look up the textbook definition of psychopath, it sounds to me exactly like what you’ve described. I read “Columbine” which was an interesting look at the two boys who committed that atrocity, and one of them was a psychopath as well.

  9. kimmmyberley

    I absolutely agree with you! This isn’t a pleasant book to read at all!

  10. ElianaBenaim

    The book isn’t meant to be pleasant. You’re not supposed to have a positive view of humanity after having read it – that’s not what a book is for. It is supposed to challenge your view and be brutal and harsh and controversial: I apologise on behalf of Shriver if you wanted a heartwarming cookie-cutter idealistic portrayal of women and their jagged doubts of becoming a mother.

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