We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

When I first came across this book, I knew for certain that I would not read it.  The premise, the tale of a Columbine-like school shooting by an unlovable boy, was too dark and bleak (and possibly too real) to appeal to me.  With school violence splashed across the headlines, why would I want to read a novel about another horrifying tragedy?  I could not imagine why anyone would want to read this book, let alone why an author would feel compelled to write the story.  A recent conversation with a friend, who saw the movie based on this book, changed my mind.  She dropped just enough morsels of information that I became curious – too curious to simply let the discussion pass.  So, I picked up a copy at my favorite local bookstore and delved into a book I was not expecting to finish, let alone like.  Well, you guessed it.  I couldn’t put it down.  It’s been a while since I read a book that was so compelling to me that I was carrying it everywhere I went, hoping for a chance to read a snippet here or there.  

But before we talk about Kevin, I’d like to say a few words about the author, Lionel Shriver.    Born in North Carolina, she changed her name from Margaret Anne to Lionel at the age of 15, because she says she never really felt like a Margaret Anne.  Shriver’s writing style hooked me instantly.  I had to research her at the start of the book, because although I believed her to be an American, something about her phrasing led me to wonder if she was European.  This research led to the discovery that Shriver now resides primarily in London.  I found her writing style to be smart and eloquent.  Her descriptions detailed, but not overly indulgent.  More than once I wondered about the IQ of a woman whose writing seemed expressive, as well as effortless.

Now back to the book.  At 400 pages, We Need to Talk about Kevin, is a sizable tome that moves steadily.  Its narrator, Eva, entered motherhood somewhat reluctantly, never bonded with her son and continued to have a challenging relationship with him, right up to the day when he murders several of his classmates.  The reader is never really certain if Kevin was born pathologically evil or if it is his complicated and lacking relationship with his mother that causes his violent rampage, since he enjoys a loving relationship with his father.  While Eva’s son and her relationship with him are extreme and dark, her reminiscence of career, marriage and travel before motherhood may resonate with many women, as they did with me.  Shriver does an excellent job of keeping the reader aware that even our dear narrator views life, and Kevin, through a subjective lens.  I found myself entering Shriver’s make believe world and, along with her husband, questioning Eva’s description of encounters with Kevin.  While through Eva’s eyes, Kevin is far from sympathetic; her love for her husband had me sometimes viewing Kevin through the rose-colored glasses of his father. 

I respect the challenge of writing a character like Eva’s son Kevin.  While he’s not remotely likable, the emotions he evokes in his mother and her subsequent discourses on the path her life has taken lead to some pretty heavy questions.  When Eva stops to wonder if part of what has Kevin so angry is that he has figured out that “the answer to life’s big question is that there is no answer”, I found myself pausing to consider the impact of such a belief.

To say Kevin is not an easy read, is an understatement.  At times it is dark and depressing, but is handled deftly in Shriver’s capable hands.  Although I completely understand shunning this book because of the weight of the subject matter, I am glad that I confronted it.  It is definitely thought provoking and because of this, I think it could make an excellent book club selection.  When I finished, I searched for someone who had read it because I needed to talk about it.

Lionel Shriver was interviewed on the Avid Reader last year for her book So Much for That.  Her latest novel The New Republic was published in March.  She will be making an encore appearance on the Avid Reader in May to discuss it.  I look forward to both the book and the interview. 

~ Donna

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