Book Review: Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I keep telling my writing friends, “We need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin.” In spite of the tragic subject matter I’d declare this 2005 Orange Prize winner one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Shriver delivered an unforgettable account of Eva Khatchadourian’s effort to understand her son’s horrific metamorphosis into a mass murderer. At the same time Eva coped with her own guilt that her parenting may have led Kevin to execute several of his classmates. It shows just how well Ms. Shriver crafted this story that a book of this nature could be so terrifying and gratifying.

            Shriver structured her narrative very creatively.  Eva related her story through a series of letters to her husband Franklin from whom she was separated. The emotional impact began there and continued until Kevin told Eva “why” he resorted to mass murder at the end. Shriver chose to commence the epistolary narrative several years following Kevin’s rampage. The novel began as Eva had been fighting a civil suit brought by the mother of one of Kevin’s victims. Through her letters she related the story from when she and Franklin decided to have children through Kevin’s life and culminating in her visiting him in prison. The emotional intensity built up throughout the story, but without drifting into melodrama. It took a very gifted author to accomplish that feat.   

I’m not going to give away any major story sparks, but I encountered two major plot twists at the end of this book that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. After re-reading these passages several times I realized that Shriver foreshadowed these events earlier in the book. Due to my reaction, I’d have to call Shriver’s subtlety in doing so genius.

 A common criticism of fiction writers is that they present readers with more factual data and information than they would find in non-fiction works. Shriver avoided this trap. She presented her details sparingly in a way that enhanced my understanding of the novel. As I read on my e-reader I looked up a number of “school shooters” she mentioned. I had no idea that many adolescents committed such acts of violence. Having that information made the story’s impact much greater and the story more relevant.

 I also enjoyed the way Shriver mentioned various aspects of pop culture (i.e. television programs) to show when events took place. Once again, she did so prudently in a way that enriched the novel. It helped me to put events in perspective.

I wrote that Shriver did an outstanding job writing We Need to Talk About Kevin. The novel did have its share of shortcomings, however. I thought she portrayed many of the characters as one dimensional. Kevin’s father, Franklin, always took Kevin’s side over Eva’s. I started to think this may have been the result of a pathological obsession for agreeing with his son. And then there was Kevin. I couldn’t relate to him at all.  Shriver didn’t present him as a round character with complexities. I found his personality to be a banal version of Damian from The Omen. Shriver depicted him as a beast or the embodiment of evil. I thought Shriver could have done a better job of “humanizing” Kevin. If I’d been able to empathize with him in any way I would’ve enjoyed the book more.

In terms of the characters, I found Eva’s portrayal the hardest to understand. Granted, she ran her own business, but she was in essence a travel agent from Racine, Wisconsin. She possessed the vocabulary and syntax of an Ivy League Level English Professor. Here’s an example of her writing from page 24, “Worse, the deadly accuracy of filial faultfinding is facilitated by access, by trust, by willing disclosure, and so constitutes a double betrayal.” Do travel agents really express themselves in this high-minded way?

We Need to Talk About Kevin addressed a scourge that affects our society all too often. In one of her letters Eva wrote, “In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.” The presentation of the subject through a fictional insight from the mother of a killer engrossed me. This story truly held my attention the entire way through. Shriver kept coming back to Eva’s search for the answer to her question, “Why?” At the very end of the book Kevin answered. The conclusion affected me in a strange way. I didn’t think the answer surprising, yet I struggled to find a deeper meaning in it. I know I’m repeating myself, but we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin.  

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