We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a very frustrating book. It is a compilation of letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her husband about their son Kevin. Who is in jail. For having shot at and killed seven children, one teacher and one cafeteria worker at his school. The setting is a typical American town, only a little while before Columbine. The mother details her relationship with her husband, leading up to the birth of the son she never wanted to have, a child who is loved and pampered by his father and who grows up hating his mother. She hates him too and, she claims, not without cause.

After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that I do not like this book. Not only because it is a hard read filled with distasteful characters and events that make you want to throw up, though that does help. It is grossly overwritten, presumably under the pretext of making Eva, a writer by profession, sound appropriately literary. It ends up bogged down by tedious detailing. The writing is hardly plot-driven and focuses more on its human elements, a good choice, I must admit, considering its theme. The problem is, the book sets big fat goals, and fails miserably to reach most of them.

The aim of the book, reinforced by its title, is to force us to think about some of the questions a high school massacre would inevitably raise – misfits and bullying, if it is the parent at fault, can a person be inherently evil, is it wrong to hope for the best as a parent and push the occasional wrongdoing under the carpet, is redemption ever possible. Shriver is right, we do need to talk about Kevin. It is a very important discussion and the book concerns itself with immensely valid arguments, but here is the thing, it adds nothing of value to the discussion. The story achieves nothing new.

I read an interview about the book on The Guardian titled, “Lionel Shriver talks about Kevin.” Witty. This is what the author has to say,

“Book clubs have also powered Kevin as he went viral, and I’ve visited a few, where groups cleave into ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother’s coldness was criminally culpable. A fine spectator sport in which I never participate, since what the book means is no longer up to me.” 

Spectator sport? How casual. Would it not have been better if Shriver had an agenda? Her own answer to the questions about Kevin. It would be worth talking about if the book wasn’t so indecisive. If it did more than show that a hitherto unanswerable question is still, well, unanswerable. If it stated and attempted to prove to us that it is in fact the parent that makes the child criminal. Nurture is the culprit. Or, the other way round. The mother could have been reliably not-at-fault, and Kevin the cold terror she believed he was. The book could have told us preventive counselling can be of no help, for instance. Had Shriver made a statement, picked a side and boldly backed it up, it would have been admirable. A unique perspective to an existing discussion. All it does now is the wasteful job of adding fuel to an already vicious fire.

Incidentally, I was recommended the book at the book club. A club discussion on this book would be a bad idea. As an active participant, I would be on the “she-was-also-at-fault” side. Eva is your classic unreliable narrator. The letter seems like a defence offered by an impassive person now sinking into guilt-driven lunacy; inconsistent and vindictive, at once defiant and helpless. The other camp at the club would be people convinced Kevin was born a sociopath. Neither arguing party would manage to prove their point. Everyone would go home stubborn and drained and somewhere, Shriver would smirk contentedly at all the talking about Kevin she started.

One of the purple, disturbing, discussion-provoking moments,

“Franklin, I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing- reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths- all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed, stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a “turn of the page,” I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off. The very surmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness , was in the end what attracted me to it.”

In contrast, the book began with a promisingly pretty moment that actually made me smile,

“Dear Franklin, I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we’ve been separated, I may most miss coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards.”
The rest of the letter and those that followed were vague and disappointing.. It is not enough to write about an important topic. A good writer has something new to say. Lionel Shriver, unfortunately, doesn’t. 

7 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver”

  1. Wow, you really dislike this one – and its author. I haven´t read it (the topic was too close to home and I definitely would have ended up in the "Kevin is born a sociopath" camp), so I can´t say anything about its content, but I disagree with your bottom line, that a good writer must have something new to say (and take a stand on her topic). Very few books would be written if that was true, very few good books, even. Only the very young would arrogantly put pen to paper.

    This was a hot topic in Sweden at the time and the book sold like hotcakes. This may not be classic literature (time will tell), but the book surely worked hard at the time to get people talking. As you say, I think Shriver´s personal bottom line is also her first, and the title to boot. I don´t think this book was written for other writers, but for the general public, the every-person.


  2. Viktoria, maybe the review sounds harsher than I had in mind. I don't dislike the author, as such. I just think the book provides little ground-breaking insight – it ends inconclusively, gives the reader the same old directions to solutions he would have arrived at anyway and, like I said, doesn't add anything to a discussion that has been around for a time. It is a long book that could have managed to do more. Maybe I read it too late, and when it came out, it did make a difference.
    Of course, the last line, I mean specifically in the context of an author who has taken up such a 'hot topic,' as you put it – I still think for me a really good writer is one who brings something new to the plate. I really tried to like the book, but it just didn't work for me. If you do ever read it, though, I look forward to seeing what you make of it.


  3. The book sounds like disappointed you but your commentary on it is terrific Priya. I like the way that you analyzed and critiqued what the author was trying, or rather not trying to say.

    On this issue, nature verses nature, I think that I agree, it would have preferred that the author take a stand, even if the stand was to conclude that character derives from a little bit of both.

    I can also see how the overwriting could get annoying. Of course one could say that it is a reflection of the character's writing.

    Too bad this was disappointing as this is great concept.


  4. Thanks for a good straightforward commentary. I especially appreciate your comments on the author's unsuccessful attempt to make the writer in the book sound literary. Also the use of an unreliable narrator can sometimes go astray.
    This is the sort of book we might have considered for our Thursday night book group, but I do not think we will attempt it.


  5. Yes, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I've heard bits and pieces about this book (and movie), but was never sure about the topic.


  6. Great review, Priya.
    I was curious about this book when it came out but the topic was not something I particularly like to read about. And like you said, what's the point in taking an old concept – nature vs nurture – and throwing it out there if you don't have anything new to say? It probably would have generated more controversy if she went one way or the other and that for me would have been a good reason to pick up the book.


  7. Thanks, Delia, that is exactly what I meant to say. 🙂

    Brian, James – Thanks for the kind words. I did not intend to sound quite as hateful as I might have come off. But the book was certainly disappointing. I would skip it, if I were you.

    ebookclassics – I have no clue about the movie. I am still interested in watching it. Speaking of which, I am planning to write an introductory post for your challenge, if it's not too late to participate. 🙂


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