We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
First lines: “Dear Franklin, I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we’ve been separated, I may most miss coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards.”
Synopsis (from back cover): “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 startingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin.
Review: I just finished this novel and am stunned, impressed, devastated and in awe. However, I think I can only recommend it to a small, select group of people! Even more surprising, I had never heard of this novel until two weeks ago.
A client contacted me about creating a custom kit for her book club. However, unlike most of my orders, the client only wanted an analysis of the four main characters and of key passages of my choosing. At first I was nonplussed and felt embarrassed charging money for what she requested; most clients want discussion questions, author background, reviews, menu ideas, vocabulary, bookmarks, etc… However, since the book was 400 pages long and since I am really quite busy with orders right now, I decided to give it a go.
Well, I have learned to trust the judgment of my client! Unpacking the complexity of the characters and finding key passages to support my analysis proved to be an exhilarating challenge and complex journey into the nature of motherhood, as well as the nature of evil. My only disappointment is that I will not be able to sit in on the discussion of the novel!
Answering what seemed, on the surface, to be simple questions (Does the mother love her son? Why does she visit him in prison? ) was deceptively arduous, yet compelling, and I quickly understood why a number of women in the book club were in definite disagreement.
Shriver creates a strikingly ambivalent and unsympathetic narrator who happens to be the mother of a fifteen year old murderer, who happens to be devoid of any redeeming qualities. Normally I would decry the lack of ambiguity in the portrait of the son, but Shriver provides more than enough ambiguity through the parents’ perceptions of their son, and this results in a much more interesting character study.
Shriver is an excellent writer — while the narrative was fast-paced and extremely compelling, the complexity of her syntax forces the reader to be deliberate and thoughtful. I usually read contemporary works at a clip of about a page a minute, but yesterday I spent 6 hours reading 150 pages. While I couldn’t put the novel down, I also couldn’t blow through it. Needless to say, I will be reserving Shriver’s other novels from the library… today.
However, I feel the responsibility to recommend this novel with a few reservations. I would NOT read it while pregnant — seriously. I might not read it if I was concerned about the nature of my child or of my parenting. The subject matter is grim — we know the son has orchestrated a school shooting from the very beginning and the letters serve as an investigation of what may or may not have lead to this horrific act.
One reviewer wrote: “A slow, magnetic descent into hell that is as fascinating as it is disturbing.” This is true. Shriver’s writing and ability to create characters is stunning. At first I thought it may be too much like Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes – which I enjoyed — but We Need to Talk About Kevin is on an entirely different plane…