Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Review)

We were so happy. Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child? (p.14)

Before reading this book, I would have said that there are things you just don’t get until you have kids of your own. Apparently, I was wrong. Lionel Shriver doesn’t have children but still she gets it. She gets all those emotion that a mother goes through. The highs and lows.

After I had kids, I’ve been asked several times if I could understand when parents shook their kids so hard that the child were damaged by it. And I always say ‘yes’. I know that your kids can drive your crazy and maybe you suffer from lack of sleep and then suddenly, you snap. I have never done anything to my kids – but I did break the glass in our wood burning stove once while being really sick and still having to take care of a very demanding kid. Things happen. So I understand that you can get the urge to do something to your kids but I still think there’s a long way from getting the urge to actually doing it.

This is the story of a mother, a reluctant mother. She never really wanted to have children but she did want to give her husband a child. They had a boy – and right from his birth, there was no connection between mother and the infant boy, Kevin. Kevin grows up and well, he’s a troubled kid. He’s bored by everything, he doesn’t care about anything. Until the day he kills 7 of his fellow students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker.

Since the entire novel is written as a series of letters from the mother to the father, from Eva to Franklin, we get Eva’s side of the story. And since Eva never really liked Kevin, she might not be the most reliable narrator. Franklin, on the other hand, doesn’t want to see what Eva sees. Or – again – that’s what Eva says.

What we do know is, that there are some serious incidents where Kevin is involved in some way or another. A part of a wheel being loosened on another boy’s bike, a girl who suddenly scratches all over in her sores, he destroys Eva’s carefully wallpapered room – and it just goes on and on.

Eva always blames Kevin for everything. She has no real contact with him – except when she gets so exasperated by him that she throws him across his room and breaks his arm. In some ways, he respects her for that and respects her for not trying to hard – which is his issue with his dad. I’m not sure how I feel about the father. He really wanted to be a father and I think he deep down know that there’s something off about his son. But he doesn’t want to admit it, he sticks up for his son always and that makes him seem a bit naive or at least blinded by his love. As Eva sees it, standing on the outside looking in, Kevin’s enthusiasm towards his dad is fake all the way but Franklin doesn’t see it and I think Kevin hates him for that.

Kevin is an amazing character. He is so well-written that he almost jumps out of the pages. You almost worry that because you are reading this book, he might be in your house, doing something to your kids. He is so real. Shriver has done her homework. She knows about all the school shootings and she has Kevin take a stand and make sure that his claim to fame is special.

This is a very tough read. It’s hard to read about a mother having such trouble bonding with her child. I think there is a misconception that you automatically love your kid from the second it’s born. And not only love it but love it more than life itself. I didn’t feel that way immediately and I’ve talked to many others mothers who didn’t get that feeling immediately either. I think some mothers feel a failure because they don’t get that rush. Eva being one of them.

For me, maybe because I’m the mother of two girls, the hardest parts to read was about Eva and Franklin’s second child, Celia. And especially Celia’s relationship with Kevin. Celia is very different from Kevin. She’s a curious child, a careful child who scares easily. A soft and sweet little girl who needs her parents a lot – and especially her mother. There are some heart crushing incidents in the story of Celia. There were parts of this story that I could hardly bear to read. But in the end, I just had to know what happened and read the last 100 pages or so in one sitting. I had to know. And it blew me away.

This is a book that asks whether nature or nurture is most important. Can a child be bad from birth or is this caused by the upbringing? The book doesn’t give any answer to this. Instead, it does one of the most important things a book can do. It makes you think.

  • Title: We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Author: Lionel Shriver
  • Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
  • Year: 2011 (originally 2005)
  • Pages: 482 pages
  • Stars: 5 out of 5 stars

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

  1. Wow. What a honest and wonderful review! I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for the past year. After reading this post, I know that I need to sit down and read this book from beginning to end.

  2. If you enjoy listening to podcasts, there is a really interesting one with Lionel Shriver, about this book of hers in particular, in the BBC’s World Book Club archives. I like to listen to them when I’m working in the kitchen and that one made me want to re-read this novel immediately (as did your post). Thanks for the reminder of what a fantastic experience this book creates for the reader!

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