Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin That neither nature nor nurture bears exclusive responsibility for a child’s character is self-evident. But generalizations about genes are likely to provide cold comfort if it’s your own child who just opened fire on his fellow algebra students and whose class photograph—with its unseemly grin—is shown on the evening news coast-to-coast.
If the question of who’s to blame for teenage atrocity intrigues news-watching voyeurs, it tortures our narrator, Eva Khatchadourian. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him. Because his sixteenth birthday arrived two days after the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is currently in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York.
In relating the story of Kevin’s upbringing, Eva addresses her estranged husband, Franklin, through a series of startlingly direct letters. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son became, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general—and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault?
We Need To Talk About Kevin offers no explanations for why so many white, well-to-do adolescents—whether in Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, or Littleton—have gone nihilistically off the rails while growing up in the most prosperous country in history. Instead, Lionel Shriver tells a compelling, absorbing, and resonant story with an explosive, haunting ending. She considers motherhood, marriage, family, career—while framing these horrifying tableaus of teenage carnage as metaphors for the larger tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.” – Goodreads

Well, folks, what can I say? I had originally shunned We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver because I hated the title; I thought it beaucoup cheesy and automatically assumed the book would be, as well. Once I began hearing all of the rave reviews, however, I did add it to my TBR list – still somewhat hesitantly. By the time I got around to reading the book, however, I must admit that I was really looking forward to the experience; I had heard so many good things about it and I fully expected to be blown away by its awesome-ness. Unfortunately, there was not much blowing away in this case.

The book is written in epistolary form, through letters written by Eva Katchadourian to her absent husband, Franklin. Eva is the mother of the infamous Kevin Katchadourian, a.k.a. “KK”, who two years before masterminded the Gladstone High School massacre. Eva’s letters follow two timelines. She writes of the present time: her daily life, her experiences with the public as the mother of a mass murderer, and her visits and communications with her son, Kevin, who is currently incarcerated. The other timeline she writes of traces Kevin’s history from pre-conception up to – and beyond – that bloody “Thursday”, as she calls the day of the killings.

The first 300-or-so pages of the book were painful to get through. Not because of the sorrow and horror of Shriver’s story, but because it was just rather monotonous – though creepy – and full of lots of unnecessarily “fancy” words, as The Boy would say. Oh, yes, Ms. Shriver apparently purchased a shiny new thesaurus before writing this book, and used it well – very well. So things slooowwwly move towards the horrifying climax, slooowwwly picking up speed – but when it does, it is worth the wait. The last one-fourth of the book was amazing. The fast pace of the climax, especially after all of the previous monotony, kept me on the edge of my seat, hungry for each new word, paragraph, page… Shriver created a chilling, complete story that was very satisfying – in a way – and which ultimately ended in a way that was incongruously touching. After nearly 400 pages of Kevin-is-a-monster, at the very end of the book we are reminded that he is actually still very much a young man in need.

Something that was interesting to me in the afterword: Lionel Shriver wrote that people who read this novel usually fall into two camps: those who see Kevin as absolutely evil and Eva as his victim, or those who see Kevin as a victim of circumstance, including an indifferent mother. Well, allow me to create Camp #3…. I thought both Eva and Kevin were just awful. I don’t care what kind of a child he was, there was no excuse for her parenting. Granted, he was pretty damn evil and needed some serious help – but that still does not excuse Eva’s actions. Ugh. They were both creepy as all get out. Although Kevin a bit more so, I will admit.

This book does put you into thinking mode, especially if you are a parent. Is your child capable of something like this? Are their friends? Can you truly do anything to protect them from this kind of violence? How do we prevent these massacres from happening over and over again? These are discourses that need to take place in homes across the country – because, frankly, we really do need to talk about Kevin.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia Digital Library

3 thoughts on “Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

  1. Kelly says:

    Sorry you weren’t blown back by this one! I will agree that I disliked both Eva and Kevin, and found them both equally at fault (the movie captures this pretty well too, I think). But I think that’s one of the things I liked best…Shriver’s ability to make you question the real “evil” at the root of the novel. This is on my favorites list but I do see what you mean about the thesaurus use…haha.

    • Pathologically Literate says:

      There’s a movie?! I don’t think I could stand it, they’re both so awful! Yes, I was disappointed by most of the book but that last 150 pages or so DID manage to blow me away – just not enough to make up for the rest of it 😦

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