Thursday, August 23, 2012

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver
Harper Perennial
2003, 400 pgs

Summary from Goodreads
The gripping international bestseller about motherhood gone awry
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.

My Summary / Thoughts

The book starts out slow.  You have to adjust to Shriver’s writing style (have a dictionary handy) and it takes a few pages to get into, but once you do it is both captivating and horrifying.  I got mad reading it several times, slammed the book closed, put it down, only to be compelled to pick it back up 5-10 min later.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is told in a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Franklin.  Eva begins writing them two years after Kevin’s rampage or as she refers to it, Thursday. 
Maybe I do not know what to call it, that Thursday.  The atrocity sounds torn straight from a newspaper, the incident is minimizing to the point of obscenity, and the day our own son committed mass murder is too long isn’t it?
Each letter contains information about Eva’s life post Thursday, and recollections of her life with Franklin as they decided to conceive Kevin and up to that terrible day.  Eva struggles with how much blame for Kevin’s actions she is responsible for. 

From the moment Eva discovered she was pregnant her response was ambivalent at best.  She wanted to make Franklin happy and he had the picture in his head of the perfect American family.  Additionally, Eva’s mother was an agoraphobic and that lead Eva to force herself to do the things she feared most.  In reality she was terrified.

None of the characters in this book are particularly likeable or sympathetic, although I will admit to having sympathy with Eva from time to time which may mean I’m horribly selfish.  Eva is accustomed to being somewhat highly regarded.  She started her own successful business of low budget travel guides and immediately is frustrated that being pregnant becomes the whole of what people see in her.

Then Kevin is born and she doesn’t get that immediate outpouring of love that she had expected to get for her first born.  Add to the fact that Kevin won’t take her breast and she feels rejected. 

As she tells the stories of Kevin’s childhood and adolescence he starts to come across a little evil almost immediately.  From constant crying when she’s the only one home, to destroying her newly wallpapered walls at three, and refusing to potty train until six, in each of these occurrences really appears that Kevin knows EXACTLY what he’s doing.  Franklin lets Kevin get away with the few things he sees, but it feels like Kevin is accomplishing what he sets out to do immediately – pit Mom and Dad against each other.

I did not like Franklin at all.  I frequently had to remind myself that I was only getting Eva’s perspective on things, but as Kevin’s behavior escalated and Franklin continued to be manipulated by him I actually lost respect for Eva for staying with him.  I want kids and Kevin didn’t scare me away from having them.  But Franklin made me think long and hard about who I would want to have them with.   Most of the times I threw down the book it was Franklin related.  Anytime Eva corrected or discipline Kevin in front of Franklin he would contradict her.  Grrrrr, I’m getting frustrated just thinking about it.

This is a dense book, 400 pgs isn’t that many, but it took me some time to get through.  What’s amazing is how well Shriver tells the story without really giving answers to the real question; was Kevin born evil or did his upbringing make him that way?  Nature vs. Nurture.

Side questions that go along with this one
How early does Nurture start?  If Eva had been bubbly or at least content during her pregnancy would Kevin have been born happier?

If Eva had stood her ground with Franklin earlier would it have made a difference?

If Franklin hadn’t been so easily manipulated by Kevin would things have turned out differently?

After reading the book I’m still conflicted about the nature vs nurture, but at least in terms of this novel am leaning towards nature.  But after reading a few other reviews I think it depends largely on the reader which means Shriver accomplished what she set out to do.  I’ll be thinking about this novel for a long time to come.

My rating
9 out of 10 stars

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