Lionel Shriver – We Need To Talk About Kevin (Book Review)

We Need To Talk About Kevin cover

Lionel Shriver – We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver’s writing is literary and sophisticated, but don’t let that fool you. Had her career gone slightly differently, it’s easy to imagine her cranking out Saw sequels. She loves to make the audience squirm, and that’s exactly why We Need To Talk About Kevin is so successful: Told by Eva, a mother whose son went on a school-shooting rampage, we get to watch his entire childhood unfold with knowledge that he will get worse, not better, with age. Shriver’s empathetic, human approach makes this horrifying story that much more effective.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. Part of this book’s draw is our curiosity about why a kid would do this, and parents will be captivated by the fear that their child could turn out the same. However, Kevin is too perfectly evil from the moment of birth to be compared to the kids we know. He refuses to be held or fed by Eva, but always acts like a good kid when his father’s around. He stubbornly refuses to talk at all in front of his parents until he’s secretly learned to speak in complete sentences at the age of three, and he still wears diapers even when he’s old enough to make it clear that he’s just doing so to make his mother uncomfortable. Even before the age of self-awareness, Kevin wants to prove to himself that he is better than everyone and relies on them for nothing.

It’s arguable that Eva’s account is not supposed to be trustworthy; After all, one major question of the novel is whether Kevin’s behavior is his parents’ fault. However, she includes too many details involving witnesses: The first nanny refused to finish a single day when Kevin was just weeks old, every parent in his preschool pulled their child out and then met secretly at another place without him, and so on. If Eva is lying about facts like these, especially when she admits so many difficult things in her writing, then the book would be meaningless. No, to get meaning out of this story, I have to believe Eva’s testimony, and approach this as a horrific tale about a child of pure evil rather than an exploration of kids in general. (The question about Eva’s culpability is also less interesting because of this. Apparently, a lot of readers do blame her for not loving Kevin enough. A great book could be written on that subject, but in this case Kevin refuses her love from the beginning. Instead, I read the book, and that reaction, as an examination of the impossible standards some people will hold mothers up to.)

Kevin is a great character, though, and he does eventually grow into his personality. As a young adult, he does represent the fears that parents have when their child grows sullen and withdrawn. The book would be incredibly powerful if it had rushed to get Kevin to that point.

In fact, almost all the characters are great. (The one exception is Kevin’s sister, a loving doormat who is too perfectly designed for narrative convenience.) Eva is a complex woman with hopes and dreams. Many people consider her a villain for being uncertain if she loves her child, but the fears she privately shares in the book are honest and relatable. The book’s horror works because we get to know her both as a vibrant young woman and as the broken product of eighteen years with Kevin. Franklin, the father, is a great foil for Eva. It’s clear how they fell in love, even if they become so strongly at odds when it comes to child-rearing. (However, it should be said that he sometimes sticks up for Kevin to the point of undermining Eva. If anyone was responsible for the way that Kevin turned out, it’s the father, and Eva’s unwillingness to face this is a real problem for her intelligent, practical character.) Even the people who pass through in a single scene are expertly portrayed.

The story is mostly told in flashbacks, but there is a running plot about Eva’s prison visits with Kevin. As much as he always spurned and hated her, their relationship becomes the most fascinating thing about the book. Near the end, the flashbacks catch up to the modern day, and the plot lines converge with a great payoff. The ending does hold some real (and fair) surprises, even if the reader did know to expect the shooting spree all along.

If I have some complaints about this book, it’s because it’s so good that it demands being held up to a high standard. We Need To Talk About Kevin is filled with great characters and makes real emotional connections with the readers. It only falls short of being a modern-day classic because Kevin’s unbelievable childhood keeps us from seriously considering the questions it asks about killers and their parents. Even so, this is both accessible and intelligent, and will stick with you after it’s finished.

Grade: B+

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