May 30, 2014 in Book Reviews

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is an epistolary novel, told entirely in letters from Eva to her husband Franklin. Through her letters, Eva goes back in time to reconstruct the chain of events that led her away from the life she loved, filled with travel to exotic lands and flying home into the arms of Franklin, the love of her life, with whom she built a family, to the place where she is now: living alone with her son Kevin in jail for the massacre of nine people at his high school.

Initially, I struggled to get into this novel. Eva is brutally honest in her letters, laying all her faults out on the table, but she is not a likeable character. She is intolerant of Americans (she is originally from Armenia) and her opinions of the obese and the pretentious and on many other subjects are hard to digest.

Eva is happy to be gone for months, traveling from country to country for her work, but Franklin wants her to be home more so they can start a family. The first fissure in their relationship begins as she resents giving up her life for a child, and when Kevin is born, the problem is further compounded by her complete disinterest in her son. She feels nothing of the maternal bond that she was promised, and because Kevin is a difficult infant and toddler, Eva can never get enough purchase to develop a love for her own son.

For me, the birth of Kevin is when this novel reached out, stuck its hooks in me, and never let go. The interpersonal dynamics are complex and thoroughly explored in all their beautiful and ugly details. Franklin, stymied by Eva’s lack of interest in her son, becomes Kevin’s biggest cheerleader, refusing to believe Eva’s tales of the monster Kevin is becoming. Eva is at her wit’s end tending to a son who is manipulative and calculating, his every behavior designed to challenge the patience of his mother. She finally loses her temper and flings Kevin against a wall, breaking his arm. As she faces her son in horror of what she’s done, she is rewarded with a smile from Kevin: her first. Later, he remarks that that was the only honest thing she had ever done.

Eva examines her own role in what Kevin becomes with unflinching honesty. As Kevin grows older, Eva and Franklin grow further apart. She sees who Kevin is, and Franklin sees who he wants Kevin to be, and they are both stuck in their roles, unable to move forward and unable to get help for Kevin because Franklin is adamant that Eva is the one with the problem.

Even the birth of their daughter Celia does little to bring them closer together, and it pushes Kevin further away. Celia dotes on Kevin, even though he treats her with derision, but her devotedness takes a hit when an accident occurs at home under Kevin’s watch, rendering Celia blind in one eye. Franklin blames Eva, but Eva knows Kevin is the one responsible. His anti-social and violent acts escalate chillingly until his final, meticulously planned act, just before Kevin’s 16th birthday: the shooting rampage he orchestrated in his high school gym.

Read this book with a dictionary nearby, for Shriver has a strong command of the English language and she is not afraid to use it. Her language, although studded with words I’ve never come across before, is lyrical and beautiful to read, even when the content itself is disturbing.

This novel was riveting. It was heartbreaking in places and eerie in others, and in the end, I finally got to a place where I understood Eva. As a mother who lives and breathes her sons, it was hard for me to find common ground with this character who seemed to have no connection whatsoever with her son. And yet, she was the one who stayed home with him as an infant and toddler while Franklin kept his job. Eva suffered through every one of Kevin’s manipulative and damaging acts, and she was the one who, from the beginning, saw Kevin as he really was, and Kevin knew it. In the end, it is Eva who visits Kevin in prison on a regular basis, never leaving him behind no matter how heinous his crimes were, and it is Eva who maintains a bedroom in her home for him to come live with her when he gets out. She may have gotten off to a rocky start, but in the end, Eva is someone I understand: she’s a mother.

Some of the Words I Learned (and may try to incorporate in future blogs!):

Excoriate: to criticize something or someone harshly.

Fricative: a sound made by forcing air out of your mouth through a narrow opening that is made using the lips, teeth, or tongue.

Hale: strong and healthy, especially of an older male.

Sisal: a strong white fiber made from a tropical plant.

Aphorism: a short phrase that expresses a true or wise idea.