Thursday, June 7, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

About book:

In this gripping novel of motherhood gone awry, Lionel Shriver approaches the tragedy of a high-school massacre from the point of view of the killer's mother.  In letters written to the boy's father, mother Eva probes the upbringing of this more-than-difficult child and reveals herself to have been the reluctant mother of an unsavory son.  As the schisms in her family unfold, we draw closer to an unexpected climax that holds breathtaking surprises and its own hard-won redemption.  In Eva, Shriver has created a narrator who is touching, sad, funny, and reflective.  A spellbinding read, We Need to Talk About Kevin is as original as it is timely. 


I know I'm late to the game, having just read this book, but after reading Ti's review of it on her site Book Chatter I knew it was time to finally give it a go.  Plus, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about regarding this book, so now I know.  And truthfully, I'm not so sure how I feel about this book.

On the one hand I can see why it generated so much discussion (it tackles issues like, the mother/child relationship, nature vs. nurture, school shootings, marriage, motherhood, etc.), and on the other hand I can see why Shriver received so much praise for her writing (because it is darn good!).  Yet, for some reason I just didn't like the book.  I found it to be too predictable and emotionally disconnected - plus, I couldn't stand the protagonist, Eva.  Her voice is the voice of the novel and I just found it to be too self-righteous and apathetic and slightly disingenuous at times.  I found myself getting annoyed with her and wishing we had a different narrator for the book.  I didn't care that she was all alone and had lost her family, because I felt nothing for her.  I couldn't empathize with a woman who decided to have a baby on a whim - as if it was the next thing to do, so that she could see what would happen next (like ticking a box on a list of things to do).  And then for her to dislike her own baby, just because they didn't have that mother/child bond that she'd heard so much about.  Just because you and your baby didn't click right away, doesn't mean that its the baby's fault or that it was a mistake to even have a baby - maybe you have postpartum depression or maybe its something else entirely?  I just find it ludicrous that Eva blamed baby Kevin for not taking to her breast and instead choosing to imbibe on formula milk - seriously!?!  Some babies just don't like breast milk. And the fact that she felt he did it on purpose - OMG! How the frack can a baby do anything on purpose?  You see, what type of woman we are dealing with - crazy!

Aside from Eva, there is Franklin (her husband), Kevin (son) and Celia (daughter) - all of whom contribute to the story in significant ways.  Franklin is the all American husband, who Eva adores - until he starts to accuse of her not loving their son and distancing herself from their family via her job.  I must admit I didn't care much for Franklin either.  Yes, he did embrace being a parent more than Eva did, but he was also unwilling to listen to her when she had valid complaints about their troubling child, Kevin.  Of course, trying to blame Kevin in a way that made him seem as if he was malicious and intentionally trying to hurt her was rather the wrong way to get Franklin on her side.  Then again, maybe Franklin should have listened to her - perhaps, he would still be alive.  As for Celia, she was the youngest in the family and the most innocent.  She fell victim to Kevin's terrorizing ways more than once and as a result she lost an eye and her life. One would think that after their daughter has lost an eyeball under the care of her big brother that the parents would take measures to ensure that their daughter will not fall prey again and that their son gets some sort of psychological help (even if it means sending him away).  The only thing Eva did was to make sure that Celia was never alone with Kevin again.  Nonetheless, she dies at his hands.  And now for Kevin - the black sheep of the family.  From the beginning, Kevin has always struck Eva as odd.  He didn't want to eat in front of her; he refused to potty train and wore a diaper until he was six; he never decorated his room with posters or knick knacks; he had one friend, who seemed to be the only person he could somewhat stand; and he never seemed to care about anyone or anything (including his family, who he just barely tolerated).  In fact, the way Eva describes her son makes me wonder why she never thought he would be capable of such a horrific crime as murder.  I suppose, a part of her wanted to believe that as evil as her son may have been, he was not that evil.  Well, she was wrong.  Kevin was that evil and in the end he took every thing away from her - perhaps, she had been right all along.  Its obvious that Kevin is smug about what he's done and how its affected his mother, but I'm not sure he was plotting since birth to make her life a living hell.  Then again, a part of me is pretty sure that Kevin was a born killer, so who knows.

Suffice it to say, we learn all about Eva's family through these letters that she has been writing to her dead husband, Franklin.  We learn how she's handled being the mother and victim of a convicted killer.  We learn how she regrets having had Kevin long before he committed any atrocities.  And we learn that she has taken on the role of dutiful mother - spending all of her money to hire a lawyer for her son's defense and then making weekly visits to him, just so he can ignore her or shout at her.  These letters are her way of trying to see where she went wrong, or how she could have changed things.  And, these letters are her way to relive a past that was filled with lots of happy memories that she doesn't want to forget.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a well written and tragic story.  It is compelling, evocative, and unputdownable. In fact, I got so worked up telling my sister about it, that she had to remind me that we were talking about a novel, not real life.  And that is what makes this book worth the hype - the way in which Shriver can turn a fictional reality into something more.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone and everyone - it is worth reading and discussing.  Yes, I know I mentioned not liking the book, and yet, here I am recommending it - what is wrong with me? Well, frankly, the fact that I reacted so strongly to this book tells me that it is a powerful read and those are usually the types of books that will leave a lasting impression - which this book did.  So, yeah, I do see the value in reading this book and that is why I wholeheartedly recommend it.  Check it out.


Bellezza said...

As an educator, mother and reader I feel I need to read this novel. I didn't read your review super carefully, because I don't want to know of any spoilers, but I'll be back to discuss it once I've read it. In the meantime, thanks for reminding me to get to it! These emotionally complex books are so worth the read, and I love how you said even now you're not sure how you feel about it. So true with emotionally laden subjects!

Ti said...

You voiced many of the same things I did about Eva. I really, really did not like her. I hated that she decided to have another kid, knowing that the one she had was not right. I hated that she knew he was a monster, yet ignored it. I hate that she continued on with Franklin even though he was a spineless Pollyanna. I didn't like anyone. I was even irked with Celia at one point thinking... stand up to him. Speak up! How horrible of me to even think that. But then when I slammed Eva on Facebook, so many sided with her and said I was being harsh. Well, in so many words anyway. And then I wondered. WAS I being harsh? In some part, yes...but with her decision to have baby #2 (no). She didn't deserve to have another kid after the way she reacted to the first one.

nomadreader said...

I really liked Eva and felt such compassion for her in this novel. I think it's very scary that women's instincts aren't trusted when their experience of motherhood veers from what is the norm. I found this novel incredibly powerful and quite enjoyed it, and my compassion and understanding for Eva was a large part of that.

Lisa said...

I really didn't like Eva but I think that was intentional on Shriver's part. She didn't want Eva to be sympathetic - it would have thrown all of the blame on to Kevin himself, and, to an extent, Franklin. This way you've got that nature vs. nurture. If Eva had been a mother who bonded with her child and never stopped fighting to build that relationship, would he have turned out differently? Or was he just wired that way? Franklin's the one who really pissed me off - he always took Kevin's side. Even if when Kevin was just a baby, Franklin should have been more sympathetic. It might have changed everything.

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

Like you I read it when I wanted to & not during the hype, I'm thankful for that. Your post has brought back many emotions I felt when reading it. A brilliant, powerful & unsettling read.

Wendy Smith said...

Great review. As a mother who has had some troubling children, I may relate more to Eva than others and understand that the relationship is a two way street and that a child can reject a parent even at a young age. While this does not usually happen, Shriver got it right.

Nadia said...

Bellezza, thanks for stopping by and I can't wait to read your thoughts on this book. It is just so heavy, that it really does take a bit to digest and I have to be honest and admit that I'm still not so sure how I feel about it. I just know it is a book worth reading.

Ti, I didn't like anyone either (except Celia and I think she was just too scared to stand up to Kevin). Eva was a selfish cow who should never had had children and that is me being harsh - it was just obvious the way she discussed and thought about having children showed that she didn't really want children, but it was more so the idea of having children and what that would mean for the next stage in her life. UGH! I think your review was awesome and so honest - I loved it! Can't believe you got slammed for it! It was your POV, so you are most definitely allowed to express it and not have to be called 'harsh' for it. However, at the end of the day, people will agree or disagree with what we write - what can you do? I have no problem with someone telling me they disagree with me as long as they don't slam me for having a different opinion. Crikey! I disagree with loads of reviews, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate reading their POV - I think it can even help me to see something differently at times. Well, at the end of the day - I agreed with your post ;)

Nadia said...

nomadreader, I agree with you about how when women's instincts don't match up to whatever society's idea of the norm is can be scary. What is normal when it comes to motherhood? Everyone is different about their mothering and I think that is what makes being a mom a unique job. The relationship you have with your child is yours and yours alone to experience. I didn't find anything odd about Eva's initial inability to bond with Kevin - that happens. What I didn't care for were her reasons to have children or how she blamed baby Kevin for everything and didn't shoulder any of the responsibility - the fact that she didn't want him after he was born would definitely made an impression on baby Kevin I would imagine. So, I can sort of see what you mean about understanding Eva - to a certain degree. And I did think the book was definitely a powerful read. However, I still think Eva was extremely selfish and just not a good parent at all.

Lisa, I hadn't even thought of that - Shriver intentionally making Eva unlikeable! That explains so much - cripes! How did I not see that?! Definitely does make the nature v. nurture convo more clear cut when you look at what a horrible mom Eva was. As far as Franklin goes - he was just as awful a parent as Eva. He never took parenting as seriously as he should have and instead just played the role of father. UGH! He drove me nuts! And I do think had both or even one of them been more of a solid and grounded parent, then maybe things would have turned out differently for Kevin.

Joan, thanks! And yes, it was definitely an unsettling read - perfect way to describe this book. Gives you so much to think about, doesn't it?

Wendy, loved your comment! Its so true that parenting is a two way street - the child plays their part, too. And a kid can reject a parent and that most definitely can affect the dynamic of the relationship. So true! Thanks so much for sharing! And, I can definitely see Eva in some of my friends who are parents and I agree with you that Shriver got it right - most definitely!