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

>>Published: April 2003

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

“I guess there’s only one question left, Kevin—the big one. Why’d you do it?”

I could tell Kevin had been preparing for this. He inserted a dramatic pause, then slammed the front legs of his plastic chair onto the floor. Elbows on knees, he turned from Marlin to directly address the camera.

“Okay, it’s like this. You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job or your little school, but you’re not going to hear about that on the 6:00 news, since guess what. Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is just the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching. And you know, it’s got so bad that I’ve started to notice, the people on TV? Inside the TV? Half the time they’re watching TV. Or if you’ve got some romance in a movie? What do they do but go to a movie. All these people, Marlin,” he invited the interviewer in with a nod. “What are they watching?”

After an awkward silence, Marlin filled in, “You tell us, Kevin.”

People like me.” He sat back and folded his arms.

***

On the surface, We Need to Talk About Kevin is Eva Katchadourian’s life laid bare through a series of unanswered letters to her husband, Franklin, detailing the finer points of her life and their life together—both good and bad—and the events surrounding their teenage son Kevin’s decision to execute nine people—seven students, one teacher, and one wrong-place-wrong-time cafeteria worker—in his high school gymnasium on April 8, 1999.

Kevin’s actions—riding a growing wave of high school shootings and assaults in the years and months leading up to the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999—and the fifteen years of coldness and disaffection that preceded the events of April 8, are the fulcrum by which Eva’s letters pivot. As much a dissection of her own selfishness, idiosyncrasies, and misgivings as it is an attempt to understand Kevin’s ambition for murder, We Need to Talk About Kevin paints an early, unforgiving portrait of a woman primed for anything but motherhood.

There is no way for me to accurately discuss this book without exposing my initial (and, in the end, unwarranted) judgement of the characters, the writing, and the narrative. To the point: for 380 out of 400 pages, I loathed this book. I fought to continue reading, determined to see it through to the end because of the recommendations of others—not because of any outstanding compulsion to understand Kevin or Eva or their unsettling family dynamic. I despised Eva, right through to her core. This is a woman that, for the majority of the book, seems to regret her role as a mother and as a wife. Though at one point she claims to have wanted, more than anything, to know and have the love of another, her actions and desires are so introverted and self-serving as to seem destructive and antagonistic to the very concept of sharing a life with someone else. Her ambitions for solitary travel and the coldness of her demeanour depict a woman who seeks companionship because she feels that she should want it more than she does.

By that same token, I hated Franklin almost as much as I despised Eva. Here is a man determined to stick his head in the sand, ignorant to the increasingly obvious divide between his familial wants and needs and those of his wife. He is as guilty of moving through the I-need-to-find-a-partner-to-be-whole actions as Eva. From minute one, Eva’s me-and-only-me selfishness is apparent, mirrored expertly in Franklin’s ignorance of every one of his wife’s true desires—ignorant because paying attention to them would mean accepting the truth: in many ways, he is a placeholder for her, something she can latch onto when “trapped” in the United States, a home she openly criticizes at every available opportunity between jaunts around the globe—research for her A Wing and a Prayer travel book operation.

Then we have Kevin and Celia. Yup. Despised them both. Kevin is an antagonistic little bastard—the apple of his father’s eye and the bane of his mother’s existence. Kevin is not right, from the minute he enters the world and into his mother’s icy grasp. The lack of an emotional core between them is apparent from Kevin’s earliest stages—though, in the end, this deficit of emotion becomes the most honest connection between any two characters in the book. For whatever reason (a question with extreme impact by the book’s finale), Kevin’s killing spree is choreographed from an early age, evident in the utter misanthropy with which he regards his family, his teachers, and the whole of society.

And last but not least, Celia, Kevin’s younger sister. Why do I hate this sweet, innocent, disarming child? Because of the selfishness of Eva’s desire to have her in the first place—because Eva’s need to feel some semblance of love in her household overrides her clear distaste for motherhood and the obvious threat Kevin’s presence provides. The malevolence of her eldest, the fear that instils in her, is what drives her to have a second child. She has Celia not because she loves being a mother and wants to experience it all over again, but because she is desperate to fill the void left by Kevin’s complete ambivalence. Celia is a reactionary move by a woman who’s wants, needs, and dreams are in conflict with one another, not in concert. I hated Celia because I pitied this character’s very existence—and because I feared so much for her safety.

The quality of Shriver’s writing threw me at first. Similar to my early concerns over the divergence between character and authorial voice that seemed evident in Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, We Need to Talk About Kevin presents itself early on as an author’s showcase. The writing is exceptional, lyrical, and at first, distracting. Shriver’s ambitious diction doesn’t fit with the presentation—of letters from a wife to her estranged husband. There is such a strong, narrative-driven presence of mind to Shriver’s writing that the letter-writing structure seems, in the beginning, disingenuous. While the intellect on display offers an accurate glimpse into the obsessively proper, presentation-filtered thoughts of Eva Katchadourian, the narrative layering of events—withholding certain elements of the plot in an overtly authorial manner as if deliberately building to a climax—feels counter-intuitive to the reader’s ability to accept the first-person, soul-expunging intent of these letters. While Eva’s personality gradually crystallizes, as does her relationship to Kevin, our acceptance of the book’s narrative structure is tested.

As technically well written as We Need to Talk About Kevin is, these structure- and character-based stumbling blocks kept me at arm’s length for far too long.

Shriver, however, had a plan.

Without giving too much away, the final twenty pages of We Need to Talk About Kevin changed everything for me. With Eva’s final words, Shriver managed to alter everything I had thought or felt towards the rest of the novel. Without the abuse of an insincere twist or startling discovery, Shriver managed to inject genuine sympathy into both Eva and Kevin, cementing the uniqueness of their connection and her motherly qualities in a completely unexpected way. The change of tone, the ability to redirect the emotions I felt towards everything that had passed without once renouncing her characters’ obvious failings, is something Shriver earned with honesty and integrity. That may seem a strange statement given my earlier distaste for the entire family, but the distance between them—the seemingly obvious hatred and absence of respect felt for one another—becomes, in the end, their defining characteristic, and the element that bridges the emotional divide between them.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is not an easy book to read, and more than once I considered placing it on my shelf, unfinished, ignored as a piece of socially disaffected, malevolent trite. Having finished the book, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone—with a simple caveat: let it breathe. Step back, walk away from it for a spell if you need to. But see it through to the final page. You won’t regret it.

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