Book review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

by Todd Foley


We Need to Talk About Kevin by Shriver, Lionel. (Harper Perennial,2006) [Paperback]

I’m a man. I don’t have kids. I have no personal connection to school shootings. Nonetheless, We Need to Talk About Kevin felt incredibly real, and it hit home.

Here’s the synopsis of Lionel Shriver’s novel:

Eva never really wanted to be a mother – and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

For a novel comprised of unsympathetic characters, this book blew me away. Kevin is a terrifying psychopath, but I found him intriguing. Eva is bitterly negative, but my heart broke for her. Franklin is an optimistic goof, but I couldn’t help identify with his idealistic vision of perfect family. Clearly, they all have a lot to talk about.

I made the mistake of watching the film before reading the book, but that certainly didn’t hinder my reading experience. Both mediums are equally compelling. The author has been criticized for her heavy prose, but Shriver is amazingly gifted with words, and each sentence is drenched in stark emotion. You’ll slowly be drawn into the madness of the family’s household, the horrors becoming more and more real with each reflection. Was Kevin born inherently evil, or was he conditioned by Eva’s disdain? Definitely not a page-turner due to its non-linear structure (each chapter is a letter written to the narrator’s estranged husband), but it’s hands down the most compelling examination I’ve read on the “nature versus nurture” debate, and you’ll be talking about Kevin for quite some time.

Picking my way to the side door again, I puzzled over how a band of marauders could have assaulted this structure so thoroughly while I slept unawares inside. I blamed the heavy dose of tranquilizers I was talking every night (please don’t say anything, Franklin, I know you don’t approve), until I realized that I was picturing the scene all wrong. There were no jeers and howls, no ski masks and sawn-off shotguns. They came in stealth. The only sounds were the broken twigs, a muffled thump as the first full can slapped our lustrous mahogany door, the lulling oceanic lap of paint against glass, a tiny rat-a-tat-tat as splatters spattered, no louder than fat rain. Our house had not been spurted with the Day-Glo spray of spontaneous outrage but slathered with a hatred that had reduced until it was thick and savorous, like a fine French sauce.
You’d have insisted we hire someone else to clean it off. You were always keen on this splendid American penchant for specialization, whereby there was an expert for every want, and you sometimes thumbed the Yellow Pages just for fun. “Paint Removers: Crimson enamel.” But so much was made in the papers about how rich we were, how Kevin had been spoiled. I didn’t want to give Gladstone the satisfaction of sneering, look, she can just hire one more minion to clean up the mess, like that expensive lawyer. No, I made them watch me day after day, scraping by hand, renting a sandblaster for the bricks. One evening I glimpsed my reflection after a day’s toil – clothing smeared, fingernails creased, hair flecked – and shrieked. I’d looked like this once before.