WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver

Kevin Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of most intense, disturbing, well-written, and deeply affecting books I have ever read. I finished it in awe of Shriver’s considerable writing talent, as well as the horrifyingly real, unforgettable story she created. I’ve struggled with this review, which is unlike me – usually I am eager to write about a book as soon as I finish it. With Kevin, though, I have found myself starting this review over and over, not entirely sure how to talk about it without giving too much away, while still giving it the credit it is due.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is the story of Eva, a woman who entered motherhood with deep ambivalence and gave birth to Kevin, a difficult baby with whom she never bonded. The book is told through letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, in which she looks back on their marriage, Kevin’s birth, and his difficult childhood and adolescence, recounting with frank honesty her experience as a mother.

Kevin is more than just a difficult child, however – he is deeply disturbed and, in the end, psychopathic. The book culminates with him executing a mass murder at his high school – a fact that is revealed in the first chapter. His first 15 years of existence are filled with incidents that grow increasingly more hateful and demonic, and the book explores how Eva feels about her son, her role as his mother, her possible cuplability in how he turned out, and her relationship with Franklin, who consistently turns a blind eye to Kevin’s evil nature and the danger he poses to his family. There is some truly horrifying stuff in here, which I won’t reveal in this review for fear of spoiling it for readers.

I know people who won’t read this book based on the subject matter, and I can understand why. But they are missing out on Shriver’s writing. She is a beautiful, eloquent writer, as I also learned from her most recent book, The Post Birthday World (reviewed here). Here is just one passage out of many that I marked purely for their craftsmanship:

[On] the birth of both of my chidren, I could immediately discern a dominant emotional tone, like the top note of a chord or the foreground color of a canvas. In Kevin, the note was the shrill high pitch of a rape whistle, the color was a pulsing, aortal red, and the feeling was fury.  The shriek and pump of all that rage was unsustainable, so as he grew older the note would descend to the uninflected blare of a leaned-on car horn; the paint in the foreground would gradually thicken, its hue coagulating to the sluggish black-purple of liver, and his prevailing emotion would subside from fitful wrath to steady, unabating resentment.

So, what is the purpose of this book, other than being what is at heart a real-life horror story? It is a thorough, modern examination of motherhood, the nature of the sacrifice of identity, and of course, an exploration of the role that parents play in shaping their children. Was Kevin’s personality ultimately a product of Eva’s ambivalence? Or was her tortured introduction to motherhood caused by a son whose antisocial and alienating personality was formed in the womb? Were Kevin’s actions meant to impress his mother, punish her, or neither? What loyalty do parents owe to their children, even at their own great personal expense?

I feel like I could go on and on about this book and still never exhaust my thoughts and questions.

A few things to add:

  • Shriver wrote an essay for The Washington Post after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. Definitely worth a read.
  • I am hopeful that Shriver will answer reader questions about the book, so please submit any questions you’d like her to answer and I will pass them along. Here are my questions:
    • Q: SPOILER AHEAD: For some reason, it was very important for me to know whether, in the end, Franklin finally understood what his son was capable of (and that Eva had, all along, been right). Was it in fact your intent, through Eva’s depiction of the expression on his face in the end as “so disappointed”, to confirm that Franklin was finally aware of who his son really was?
    • Q: I understand that you did painstaking research into other, real-life school shootings in your writing of Kevin.  In fact, Kevin contemplates that the Gladstone shooting in some ways affected some of the school shootings that came later, such as (real-life) Columbine. Have you ever gotten criticism for using real-life incidents – and such painful ones as that – as plot elements in your fictional story?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this online book club. Please share your thoughts below. I am very much looking forward to the discussion!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponEmail this to someone

31 Comments

  • December 10, 2008 - 3:49 am | Permalink

    I never finished this book. It was hard for me to accept that any child was born evil. Maybe one of these days I’ll go back to this book and pick it up with different eyes.

  • December 10, 2008 - 7:16 am | Permalink

    This book does sound powerful, but I’m not sure it’s the right read for me right now.

  • December 10, 2008 - 8:32 am | Permalink

    I’m still reading – only on page 80. It’s a compelling read. I keep picking it up so I can find out where the author and Eva are taking me.

  • December 10, 2008 - 8:57 am | Permalink

    I finished this book a few months ago, but I have to admit that it made such an impression on me, I still think about it occasionally and I talk about it with anyone who will listen. One question that really stuck out in my mind was, “can a child really be born bad?”. I posed this question to my book club, and was a bit surprised that I received a resounding, unanimous “yes!” for a response.
    I’ve spoken to a few people who really despised Ava, the mother, and seemed to blame her for Kevin’s issues. I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt a lot of sympathy for Ava and I enjoyed the rawness of her character. She was honest about her shortcomings and even overanxious about the role that she played in chain of events that led to the massacre.
    Lionel Shriver is truly a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of her work!

  • December 10, 2008 - 9:01 am | Permalink

    One other point that I wanted to raise… I found the father, Franklin, to be quite despicable. I was amazed at how Eva wrote her letters to him with such love and adoration, yet I as the reader developed an intense dislike for him. A true mark of excellent writing!

  • Kelly C
    December 10, 2008 - 9:07 am | Permalink

    This book has me reeling. I’m not quite done with it but almost. At first I hated it and had to force myself to keep reading. I couldn’t relate to Eva at all–in fact I disliked her intensely. Some resentments and stress after the birth of your first child are normal, because it’s such a life-changing thing, but I felt that Eva was so over-the-top and at first seemed so utterly self-centered and heartless. Then I read further about some of the awful things Kevin did (usually in such a sneaky subtle way) and how he treated his mother–the whole potty training thing and ruining her carefully designed study, and I felt heartbroken for Eva. And yet, I kept holding onto the fact that because we were only seeing this from Eva’s point of view, it was possibly a warped view–was she the psychotic one? Was she hiding things from us, the readers? Oh every page changed my mind! This is a very complex book that raises a lot of questions. I think Lionel is a genius. I’m anxious to hear some input from her.

  • December 10, 2008 - 10:30 am | Permalink

    I would encourage everyone to finish this book. It will shake you to your core (especially if you are a mother) and keep you wanting to discuss it over and over again. I continue talking about this book every time someone finishes it, I still have unresolved emotions to specific situations in the book but will leave them ‘unspoken’ for now, seeing that some have not yet completed the book (and I don’t want to give anything away).
    While reading the book, I thought something was amiss but I couldn’t put my finger on it until the end of the story. I felt the sadness that Eva carries with her two years later, as she struggles to accept the situation and move forward. I also thought about the reference of nature vs nurture. Are some people born evil?
    The grocery store scene in the opening chapter still haunts me. Seeing violent acts on the news daily, we do not think about the impact of surviving everyday life for the victim’s family. On the flip side, families of the perpetrator struggle to live a life with dignity. A visit to the grocery store is such a simple act, Shriver’s use of it profound.
    Questions:
    1. How long did it take to write the initial draft and did you try to keep in the mind of Eva while writing this book? It’s so moving, the writing of her struggles as a Mom and feeling something was amiss from conception. It’s haunting.
    2. Frank was so passive which helps the telling of the story, did you feel you couldn’t tell the same story with a stronger father figure?
    3. I knew someone with a prosthetic eye as a teenager. How did you come up with the idea, this ends up being a powerful piece of the Kevin’s story?

  • December 10, 2008 - 10:49 am | Permalink

    sounds like a great book

  • December 10, 2008 - 11:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Gayle, for hosting this book club and for selecting this book. I loved it. Well, I should say it haunted me. It changed some of my perceptions of the world. I finished it a couple of weeks ago and only posted my review this week because I didn’t quite know how to put my thoughts into words. Still, I think about the book – particularly the final scene and Eva’s reactions to motherhood – frequently. My review, such as it is, can be found here: http://thebluestockings.com/2008/12/we-need-to-talk-about-kevin/.
    QUESTION FOR AUTHOR
    I read in the extra materials in the back of the book that your editor suggested that you allude to rather than actually include the massacre scene at the school. What did he/she have to say about the scene in the backyard?

  • December 10, 2008 - 1:17 pm | Permalink

    This is a difficult book to read due to the subject matter. I am still working on it though because as hard as it is for me to read, I find myself drawn to it.
    A few have commented on the idea of a child being born evil but as mothers, I do believe that although we love our children, we are also able to tell when something is “off” early on. I’ve spoken to lots of moms that did not have good birth experiences (no bonding, no connection, etc) only to find out later about some underlying problem. Instinct? Not sure.
    I am going to check back throughout the day to read everyone’s responses.

  • December 10, 2008 - 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Great review, Gayle!
    I’m about halfway through the book, and to be honest, it’s only starting to get interesting for me. I didn’t like Eva at the beginning, and I felt like she was rambling on and on. But now that I’m at a point in the book where Kevin is really starting to show the type of kid he is, I don’t want to put it down. You’re right about how difficult it is to put your thoughts and feelings about this book into words. I’m finding that already, and I’m not even finished!

  • December 10, 2008 - 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I really admire this book and Lionel Shriver (also enjoyed The Post Birthday World). The writing is very intellectual and really sets the tone for the story told from Eva’s point of view.
    I could completely understand where Eva was coming from, and though in the early sections, I tended to be more critical of her behavior towards Kevin, I think you can see with the birth of her daughter, that there is more wrong with Kevin than wrong with her. And yes, I do believe that some children can be born bad and even the best parenting isn’t going to help. Kevin respected Eva because he knew she understood his true nature and despised Franklin for refusing to see it. Powerful stuff.

  • Miriam
    December 10, 2008 - 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Gayle for the opportunity to experience this book which was troubling and profound at the same time. I really did not want to read this and have not finished it but Eva’s voice is so strong and compelling. I don’t know if I want to read further right now but Lionel’s writing is just amazing. I found Eva to be so sympathetic. I really feel for her. And Kevin is such a monster. For an author to have you feel all these emotions through the power of words is just genius.

  • Tamie
    December 10, 2008 - 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I also found this book very compelling. The question of nature v. nurture has long been an interest of mine. This book kept making me ask myself, “Is Kevin like this because his mother never truly loved him, or could his mother never love him because he is like this?”
    While I, personally, find it hard to imagine not having that instant bond with my child, I did feel sympathy for Eva. I was especially moved by her continuing visits to Kevin despite his actions and treatment of her. So maybe Eva did love him. Who else but a mother could continue to visit him?

  • Darby Lohrding
    December 10, 2008 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

    A book that shakes your core, is a well written book! Gayle, I too found the book disturbing yet at the same time insightful for who are we to judge until we walk in another’s shoes…we never know what they may be dealing with or the cards they have been delt.
    Darby
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  • Lisa
    December 10, 2008 - 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I was a bit, no, a lot, hesitant to read this. As I get ready to adopt, the same fears that kept me from wanting bio children early on surfaced. Now that bio children are not an option, I wonder if I am tempting fate sometimes. Will I just adopt someone else’s problems? Or will nurture truly triumph over nature? I find it odd that people don’t like Ava–I bonded with her instantly. My only question was how could someone that in tune with her instincts could be in love with (and continue to love) someone like Frank? I would think that love would have faded and disappeared in the face of his continued disbelief in her.

  • Kori
    December 10, 2008 - 5:20 pm | Permalink

    When I began to read this,I was very tempted to just put it aside because of the way Eva would write her letters to Franklin. It seemed very arrogant, and cocky, her style and I couldn’t imagine anyone speaking like that in an everday manner. However as I kept reading, and discovering more of who Kevin was, as well as Eva, I could not put the book down!
    Obviously, the question of nature vs nurture came to mind. Can a child be born bad, or do they become bad because of their surroundings and they way they are brought up? Eva was not shy about acknowledging that she did not want to have a child. Can a child feel this lack of love or desire already in the womb?
    At the end though, it seemed that both loved each other, Kevin with his photograph of his mother and Eva with her constant, steady visits.
    It was a remarkable book.

  • Kiki
    December 10, 2008 - 6:52 pm | Permalink

    We read this book for book group (as well as The Post Birthday World, which I loved) and we all felt this book was very powerful. It definitely started a terrific discussion–was Kevin born bad (nature?), or did nurture play a part. Personally, I was very sympathetic with Eva, and less so with Franklin, who obviously is in denial about who his son really is–which is sad, because if he just could have acknowledged that fact sooner, maybe they could have turned the tide and done something about it (what, I don’t know! Here I am talking about these people as though they are real, but that is how wonderful this writing is!).
    I feel hesitant to criticize Eva because how many of us are 100% ready for parenthood? Many of us start out with ambivalent feelings, so I certainly have a hard time jumping all over her for Kevin’s problems. She has a successful career that she is not necessarily willing to sacrifice, just because she has a child. I don’t necessarily think that is bad. Why don’t more father’s stay home with their children?
    I felt this book was excellent–chilling, well written and pretty scary when you think that something like this could happen to anyone (as witnessed with the many school shootings and over the last few decades).
    This book generated one of th ebest discussions we ever had Yes, it is hard to read, but perhaps it should be read by all parents–whether they already have children or if they are thinking about having children–and your kids may be okay, but what about your child’s peers? A boy withdrew from our school (kind of a forced resignation at our public school) just this week because he had a “hit list” on some other boys. This was a very timely wake up call–this boy has been in my 7th graders class for years–he once bit her sister (a year younger than they are)in about 1st or 2nd grade because he just didn’t like what she was saying to my other daughter. is this an impulsivity (is this a word?) problem? Does Kevin plan his attack, or does he just wake up and decide to do it? (yes!)
    I think Eva is a very admirable character. I finished the book feeling very vague about Franklin.

  • December 10, 2008 - 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I have so enjoyed reading everyone’s comments! I read this novel months ago (my review: http://bookclubclassics.com/Blog/2008/08/17/sunday-salon-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin/ ) and would have loved to have discussed it immediately!
    One of my favorite aspects of this novel is that Shriver refuses to accept the “nature vs. nurture” debate as a dichotomy. I think we, as adults, realize that our identities are a complex mixture of both elements, yet we can tend to pigeon-hole kids — especially adolescents — as one or the other.
    Shriver does not allow us to simply pigeon-hole any of the characters as “bad” or “good.” Each one is complex and compelling. It was refreshing to be confronted with an individual — “Eva” — rather than a symbolic “mother” figure.
    I couldn’t help but imagine the horror of her life, yet couldn’t help but ask how reliable a narrator she is, especially when we realize the depth of her grief.
    Such a great novel for discussion, isn’t it!?

  • Kiki
    December 10, 2008 - 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Great point, Kristen-how reliable of a narrator is Eva? How much does she protect herself, especially when she “accidentally” hurts Kevin. Still, it is very easy as parent to feel the frustration, pain, and disappointment she is going through.

  • gwendolyn b.
    December 10, 2008 - 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ve spent this year trying to read outside my comfort zone (brooding British detectives and anything by Sharon Kay Penman) and, boy, has this book taken me there! I am completely overwhelmed and not quite ready to discuss this book in any intelligent or comprehensive way. It is so beautifully and richly written that I have only been able to experience it in small doses, and I have not read all of it. I even set it aside and read another book, but could not keep this one out of my mind. Afraid that I would be overpowered by the literary style, I skipped ahead to the ending. I’m glad I did. I knew something big was coming, and I didn’t want my approach to descend to the level of just another thriller. Knowing “what happens” also allows me to read copious amounts of commentary without having to be concerned about spoilers, and I’m finding that enriches my experience even more. At some point, I realized that this novel qualifies as a true work of art – it can and should be viewed from many different perspectives, in pieces and as a whole. You can go back to it again and again for further viewing and consideration. (One reviewer mentioned that she plans to read the novel for a third time.) I was reminded of an art quotation from a long time ago, and I had to chase it down. “Prettiness has nothing to do with art, nor does good taste, good manners or good morals.” (Timothy Ferris, album review of Lou Reed’s Rock ’n’ Roll Animal, Rolling Stone, Mar. 28, 1974) Art isn’t always easy and neither is this book. It can be scary, sad, and ugly – complex and contradictory. The art of this novel is that Lionel Shriver has taken some difficult and unattractive truths about us and described them in language so unerringly honest and lush that we cannot look away, and so we can finally confront and consider these truths. Art isn’t always pretty. Life isn’t always pretty. Our own minds are not always pretty.
    Thank you, Gayle, for sharing this book with me and giving me an outlet for my musings.
    Thank you, Lionel Shriver, for creating this wonderful work of art.
    And one parting thought about motherhood: I think the ending of “Rosemary’s Baby” says it all.

  • gwendolyn b.
    December 10, 2008 - 7:51 pm | Permalink

    I do have a question for the author:
    One reviewer piqued my interest when she wondered if there was any significance to the names of the characters. If so, would you let me in on that? Thanks.

  • Lindsay
    December 10, 2008 - 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I have had trouble getting through this one. Like some previous posters, I keep picking it up, reading a little, and then grabbing something else. Somehow the small doses make it easier to take. Having read all the reviews, though, I am going to try to get farther and read a larger chunk. I am intrigued since so many people seemed moved by this book. Thanks for choosing it, Gayle. I wish I had finished it before today!

  • Michelle B
    December 11, 2008 - 11:47 am | Permalink

    I too had a tough time with the book. It took me about half the book to feel it really flow, but after that I couldn’t put it down. The feelings I had while reading and the mental pictures haunt me still. I am even more amazed at Ms. Shriver after reading in the P.S. that she is not married nor a mother! I had my book group last night and was so disappointed that no one else has read the book (yet). I wanted to have a discussion about whether a child can be born ‘evil’.
    I am curious why this scene was put in the story – when Kevin is sick and then acts like a ‘normal’ child. What was this to show us – that he did love his mother? that the way he was was an act? what?
    A fascinating book. Thanks Gayle for choosing this book

  • Kelly C
    December 11, 2008 - 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think Kevin’s entire life was an act. Eva refers to this possibility several times–how exhausting it obviously was for him to keep up his guard, his charade of uncaring. We see that in the end, too, when Kevin gives Eva that small box and seems to be a bit defeated and worn out. I finally finished the book today, and like Gayle, the first thing that comes to my mind is “wow.” Even though we know the outcome (or most of it) from the beginning, the author still builds an enormous well of suspense until the end. I think someone already mentioned that they “were blown away” by this book, and I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Len
    December 11, 2008 - 3:06 pm | Permalink

    WOW!
    What a compelling book, and what a fantastic review Gayle. Most of the commenters to this point summed up nicely the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of the language, the story itself and the characters. I particularly liked how Shriver left ambiguous the “answers” to all the dichotomies mentioned (nature/nurture, good/evil, blind/sighted, etc.). That ambiguity is much more appealing in art than in life.
    This was one of those books I just didn’t want to put down, and when I got to the end, I was sad to be there.
    An amazing, scary, beautiful and – literally – stunning read.

  • gwendolyn b.
    December 12, 2008 - 5:29 pm | Permalink

    I found Kevin to be an extraordinarily complex character, but I didn’t think so until I read the closing scene where he presents Eva with a gift (or maybe it was even gifts). For the most party, I saw him as a one-dimensional monster. All my sympathies were for Eva. I only held her responsible in so far as she did not do enough to have Kevin’s true personality exposed and evaluated. Once I realized how totally vulnerable he felt, I saw Kevin in an entirely different light. I can understand why people want to read this book more than once – there is just so much to absorb and process. Now I am left wondering what Kevin will be like if he survives prison. Will he and Eva fall back into their old patterns of behavior? Will he commit further atrocities? Or did the connection they made in that final scene completely change the rules and parameters of their relationship and, therefore, his future? For me, the scene certainly changed what I had thought were the possibilities for the past.

  • Tara
    December 13, 2008 - 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Although I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin, I really struggled with this book. I had a hard time believing that a child can be so evil from birth. I kept trying to talk to people about it, but they hadn’t read the book.
    I will admit I am not quite finished yet, and I am still not sure of Eva’s role in the whole thing…nature vs nurture is almost a judgment call that I am not willing to make.
    A couple of years back I was able to take some Threat Assessment training with Kevin Cameron. The first “credo” if you will is “No one ever snaps”. There are always warning signs it is just whether we see, or are willing to see the signs and act upon them. Kevin had many classic signs of a student who was either a risk to himself or others and yet there seems that there was little intervention, of course the timing of the book being before Columbine, Taber and numerous others since then is likely why.
    This is a fascinating and powerful book. I had never stopped to think about the parents of a child who murders. Although I found myself questioning the tone of Eva’s recollections simply because as mentioned before she was looking through a “hindsight 20/20″ lens. Kevin’s actions would taint anyone’s recollections of the past.
    Thanks Gayle for this awesome opportunity.
    A question for the author would be:
    Where did the foundation for Kevin’s character come from? Why does he show no remorse?

  • Sarah
    December 15, 2008 - 10:52 am | Permalink

    I read the book over three years ago, and I can’t recall another book that I’ve read in the past that I think about more regularly.

  • December 16, 2008 - 1:13 am | Permalink

    I’m really in the minority here. I actually put this book down after 5 pages. I absolutely didn’t connect with the author’s writing style nor do I believe I would have connected with the characters not ever having raised a child. Knowing this I didn’t feel compelled to go further nor do I now after reading comments left here by others.
    I don’t believe the subject matter would have had the same, sometimes disturbing, effect on me as it did others. Not being a parent I believe offers me the ability to distance myself from the story line and possibly view the events in a different light and perspective.
    These posts have been fascinating to read. I’ve gained value and insight into this story without having read it. I’d like to thank Gayle for hosting this discussion.

  • Pingback: Everyday I Write the Book » Parent’s Worst Nightmare Books

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>