Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I had heard this book would be great for a book club, and that it would probably never be picked for mine because it is so horrifying for parents (I am the only non-parent) so I decided to go ahead and read it and not wait to see if it was picked. And I agree on both counts. This book is not for the faint of heart, not for those currently hoping for a child, and not for anyone who likes happy stories. That said, I loved it, as much as one can love a horrible, dreadful story about an evil boy and his iffy mother.

Told in letters written to her estranged husband, Franklin, Eva is trying to make sense of what has happened in their lives: their son Kevin shot and killed a dozen of his high school classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker. Eva is trying to figure out how much culpability she shares for how Kevin turned out, and how much was simply the way Kevin is.

From the very beginning Eva, president of a company that publishes budget travel guides, is ambiguous about having a child. Franklin, more traditional, is less ambiguous, but neither of them feels very strongly about it except that it seemed that they ought to have a baby. Once Eva became pregnant, Franklin became very overprotective of her. Well not of her exactly, but of the unborn baby - in fact he seemed to care less about Eva herself. Once Kevin is born - really from the first minute, he seems to reject Eva and is frighteningly unhappy around her. But not around Franklin. And it's not as if he simply loves Franklin more and only Franklin can soothe him - it's like this baby is scarily intelligent and hates his parents and is pitting them against each other. Franklin things Eva is exaggerating and not trying hard enough. And things do not improve from here. As Kevin gets older, he becomes more evil and manipulative and horrid. And naturally Eva is distant and conflicted and struggles with her feelings. Franklin increasingly thinks Eva misunderstands their innocent boy (who plays him like a fiddle) and their marriage disintegrates.

But is Eva right? After all. she's telling the story so naturally she'd be telling us only her perspective - is Kevin truly evil from birth? Or has her coldness and distance made him so? Is he really as horrible and manipulative as she thinks? Or is Franklin perhaps at least a little bit right? Well, given that we know the outcome from the beginning (mass murderer), it does give Eva's version credence, but you can't help but wonder if perhaps she could have tried harder and perhaps Kevin picked up on her ambivalence about being a mother. And yet, we must wonder why Franklin doesn't reply to Eva's letters, why he doesn't visit Kevin in prison, and what Kevin could have done to finally have destroyed his faith in him. I will admit to being shocked a bit by the ending.

The book is riveting, fascinating, un-put-downable (in fact I read while waiting to tee off on the golf course.) It is fantastically written with a distinctive voice and raises many, many questions. For a daring, strong book club this book would lead to an excellent discussion. A week after I read it, I still find myself thinking about it. Apparently some readers think Eva is the evil one in the book and I freely admit to being in the other camp, believing that Kevin truly was horrid from conception and next to nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. In fact, I think Eva was a much, much better mother to the wretched boy than most people (myself included) would be and that those who think she's at fault are holding her to unfairly high, unachievable standards. But you should read it yourself to decide if you agree.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Oh goodness, I've heard so much about this book but the thought of the child being innately evil from conception is so incredibly scary. But because I work with a population of people where a lot of children have lots of behavior issues that are clearly as a result of issues with their parents, I wonder if I would tend to relate better to the child? I don't know but I feel a little afraid to read this, LOL!!