My process for writing these reviews is remarkably consistent; generally, within a chapter or two, I’ve thought of some analogy or bon mot to open with, and then I craft my thoughts on the book as I read it, usually coming up with three or four points to touch on in my observations. With my latest read, I had the opening conceived of before I even left the book store, and I had contingencies for how to alter it if I like the book or if I didn’t. A couple chapters into the book I had revised my strategy to comment on what I thought would be the major aspect of my review. But, by the end of my reading, all I could think to say is that we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.
First, a word about the book itself. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Franklin. Eva is using these letters to record her impressions of the life she and Franklin shared from right before they became parents, until the time of their estrangement. While Eva is the founder of a travel-guide dynasty,
works as a location scout for commercials; they live a comfortable life that seems perfect. The impetuous for the beginning of Eva’s story is their debate on if and when to have children. Finally, they take the plunge and Eva gets pregnant, giving birth to Kevin. From the beginning, Eva perceives that there’s something wrong with Kevin; from birth he seems malicious, he can’t stand to be around his mother, he drives away baby sitters, and he seems heartbroken to be living in a world that he can’t see any purpose in. Eva’s story continues from Kevin’s birth to the family’s move to the suburbs of Franklin , Kevin’s entry into school, the birth of Celia (their second child), and Kevin’s high school years. Throughout, Eva is uncomfortable around Kevin, no matter how hard she tries to be a good mother. In her letters to New York , Eva documents her interactions with her son and her impressions of him as a person. Franklin
Of course, none of this sounds remotely engaging… but Eva isn’t telling her story in a linear fashion. We know, from almost the jump, what makes Eva’s story so engaging. And it’s this – Kevin, during his sophomore year of high school, perpetrated a school shooting, killing several classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker. He was sentenced to prison, and Eva still visits him, but Franklin and Celia seem to have dropped out of his life entirely.
All of this has the making for a dynamic and enthralling read. But, when I first picked up the book, I felt cheated. Eva’s letters to
sound, for lack of a better term, pretentious – the sentence structure is complicated, the vocabulary is over-blown, and the evidence she’s presenting for her relationship with her son seems to be over the top. It seemed ridiculous to assign malicious motives to an infant, and so the account of Kevin’s early years didn’t ring true. However, once I got used to the style of writing, and Kevin grew up and his shortcomings didn’t seem so preposterous, the book began to improve in readability. By the end, I was enthralled with Eva’s account and story telling. If this was because it became clearer and clearer just what Kevin was capable of, or if it was just a case of reader acclimatization, by the end of this book I was hooked on it. Franklin
Other than the writing style, what captured me about this book was the sorrow that flows from every page. It’s everywhere. Eva is Armenian by decent, and does what she can to instill the surface qualities of her culture on her children (by that, I mean by giving them her last name and cooking Armenian food, but not engaging in the religion – surface qualities). Part of this cultural legacy that she gives to her children is a shared memory of the Armenian genocide – the story is never hidden from the kids, and in fact, is used quite often to justify her parenting decisions. Besides this massive instance of sorrow, Eva’s story is peppered with smaller morsels of sadness. Kevin came to age in the mid- and late-1990s, an era peppered with stories of schools shootings (trust me, I’m only a year or two behind Kevin, I remember this time well). Throughout the reading of this book, knowing the end game of Kevin’s actions, these additional stories, touted by Eva to
as a reminder that their son is not unique or special in any kind of positive way, are like emotional body blows that are relentless. Franklin
The result of the constant inclusion of sorrow from each page isn’t what one might think; it doesn’t inure you to the reality of Kevin’s actions in the end. If anything, it highlights and compounds them. The references to the Armenian genocide, contrasted with multiple instances of school shootings left me with the same impression – no matter the scale, malicious death is devastating. Be it teenagers sitting in class, or a cultural movement to eliminate the ‘other,’ the result is the same – sadness and the need for those left behind to pick up the pieces. One doesn’t become immune to this sadness, if anything, Kevin’s actions compound it, and make it more shocking.
The fact is, though we know where Kevin ends up following his actions, we don’t know the full extent of them until the very end, and we don’t ever really know why he did what he did. The why of it all is the one thing that everyone wants to get to the bottom of, but that even Eva isn’t fully able to answer. Much like any act of malicious violence, there is no good reason and no reasonable justification to be had. Throughout my reading of the book, I thought the why of it was obvious enough – Kevin is a sociopath. He has no emotion, no conscious, and no elemental connection to those around him. Strangely enough, Eva (and Shriver) never uses that term; she never tries to excuse or justify Kevin’s actions with a label, she simply lets them stand to be examined by their own merit. Maybe labeling Kevin a sociopath would have been Monday-morning quarterbacking, giving Eva something to hide behind as an excuse for Kevin’s actions, and a pass on her own, I don’t know, but I still think the description is apt.
I realize that this is a long review, and trust me when I say I could go on and on about this book. When I first picked it up, I didn’t think it was much good and I had to force myself to keep reading. However, about a third of the way into it, I was sold. So, final verdict? This isn’t a book for everyone. The vocabulary and prose can be dense and if you’re not someone who enjoys that kind of thing, I imagine it will serve as a road block to the rest of the book. But, if you can get past that and really get into the story, I think its well worth the read. I imagine this is a book I’ll be reading again in the future, and what better recommendation for its merits could I make?