Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is the fictional account of the implosion of a family after their almost-16 year old son goes on a calculated rampage and kills nine people in the high school gymnasium.

The story is told in a sequence of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her estranged husband Franklin.  Eva’s letters are filled with raw emotion and brutal honestly.  She dissects her marriage and her parenting skills, or lack thereof, in great detail on a quest to answer the big question.. why?

The reader is given a glimpse into Eva’s sad life in the wake of the killings, which we know about from the beginning, and then leads us back in time to before Kevin was born. We see Eva and Franklin as a happy childless couple, how their decision to have children is made, and on through the birth of Kevin and, years later, his sister, Celia. We see Kevin become increasingly more disturbed and dangerous until the shocking conclusion and his eventual incarceration in a juvenile detention center.

Nature vs. nurture is the complex issue here. What role does parenting play in the making of a killer? Kevin, it seems, was born evil. A listless baby who rejects his mother’s milk, a toddler who doesn’t learn to talk or play on schedule, refusing even to potty train until he is 6 years old, a child who finds joy in nothing, Eva fails to bond with him.

Franklin faults her for working too much, for always seeing the bad in Kevin. Eva takes a leave from her business to be a full time at-home parent, but the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis from her son is alarming. Kevin takes pleasure in the pain of others, and does nothing to hide his sadistic nature from his mother. He seems to enjoy tormenting Eva from a very early age, while playing “Gee, Dad, you’re swell” with the oblivious Franklin.

It’s hard to imagine why, having given birth to the ‘bad seed’ and having such a miserable parenting experience, Eva would then go on to intentionally become pregnant and have a 2nd child. Celia, born 7 years after Kevin, is everything he is not. She is light, he is dark. She is good, he is sinister. . two extremes with no shades of gray. Is anyone all good, or all bad? This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the book.

Kevin does not take well to being a big brother, and Franklin, duped into parenthood the 2nd time around, sees Celia’s passive nature as weak. Eva, on the other hand, is somewhat vindicated by the birth of Celia. She sees that she really can love a child she has given birth to, and that she’s not a horrible parent after all. Kevin’s behavior gets increasingly worse. Franklin has an explanation for everything Kevin does, painting him as a follower and a victim. Whenever Eva tries to talk with Franklin about Kevin’s true nature, he becomes defensive and treats her as if she is a tattletale who can only see the worst in her son. I can’t conceive of a more clueless parent than Franklin.

The last 1/3rd of the book was riveting. The tension builds to a twist at the end so shocking that I actually gasped. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrible, amazing, disturbing, fantastic, imperfect book. I highly recommend it for a reading experience you will not soon forget.


30 Responses

  1. This book sounds really good.

    Ironically, I’m reading something very similar right now. It’s by Jodi Picoult and it’s called “nineteen minutes”. I think you would like it.

  2. Crystalgable beat me to it – I was also going to recommend Nineteen Minutes. Similar theme, excellent book. I’d also suggest Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, which would round out the “trilogy” quite nicely. 🙂

  3. Actually, if we’re going to be recommending books along the same theme, I would recommend The Fifth Child. Has anyone read that?

  4. Great review, as usual. I wish you had been in my book club meeting so that we could have discussed it! I thought one of the major flaws was Franklin being so blind to Kevin. In the end I didn’t feel Kevin was completely evil…it’s almost as if he “grew up” and realized the consequences of his actions. Was he remorseful because he was going to the “big leagues”? Perhaps. But I saw a glimmer of hope in him at the end. Faint and flickering, but there. Though I think (granted, I don’t have kids yet so my opinion doesn’t carry much weight on this) that if I was his mother, I would have given up on him at some point after the incident. But she persisted…doing the thing only a mother could do.

  5. Have you been able to discuss this book with anyone? I think if I hadn’t been able to talk out this book with my book club I would have gone crazy. There’s so much to discuss (I think you hit on quite a bit)! (Sorry for all the comments…it’s late and my thoughts are scattered)

  6. […] Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel ShriverBy lisammThe tension builds to a twist at the end so shocking that I actually gasped. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrible, amazing, disturbing, fantastic, imperfect book. I highly recommend it for a reading experience you will not soon …Books on the Brain – […]

  7. I have this book and will probably finish the latest and start this on Thursday. Was this for your book club? And how was your club discussion of TOBG?

  8. Trish, you are so right. That is the only time in all 400 pages that I felt a little humanity from Kevin, and it was only when he was facing “the big leagues” as you put it. Finally, something got to him. I think I would have given up on Kevin after the incident with Celia. To me, that would have been unforgivable. After reading the end and knowing everything, it was a little unbelievable to me that she was visiting him weekly. I don’t think I would have done that in the same situation.. but I guess she wanted answers.

    No, I haven’t talked to anyone yet about this book. I don’t know anyone IRL who has read it. I would have LOVED to have attended your book club meeting!! BTW, what are you guys reading now? I’m not going to recommend it for my book club because I know at least one friend (hello, Sara) would be deeply disturbed by it. SHe works in family law and sees enough real life horror to ever want to read about it. But I will be passing it around.

  9. Hi Care, We had our meeting for TOBG Sunday. It was great but there were no deep insights. Basically lots of commentary on how everyone loved the book and how different it was from what we normally read. We went through the discussion questions in the back of the book. A lot of time was spent discussing other books we’ve read and what we’ll read this spring, and then lots of time was spent eating 🙂

  10. Crystal, BookMama, and Trish, thanks for the book suggestions. I may check those out, after I recover from “Kevin”. Right now I want something dramatically DIFFERENT!!

  11. Wow. This book sounds intense and very good. I think it would be a good read, and I would ‘enjoy’ it, but I’ve put it off knowing how disturbing it might be.

  12. Lisa, no, I don’t have any children – just the pup… I remember when we read Lovely Bones, that a LOT of the moms couldn’t get past the first chapter. This Kevin book DOES sound intense. but fascinating, too.

  13. Oh, and I am with you about changing it up. I don’t like to read the same things right after each other. Which is probably why I don’t have read many books by the same author – I have to mix it up.

  14. I have never read such a disturbing book. And I have real problems with it. Why didn’t an upper middle class white (I only use this designation to distinguish them from some who might not know about resources, psychological problems, sociopaths, etc.) thorough neurological, psycologiccal and physical workups from the best facility they could find? How could the husband have been so clueless? How could anyone who ever met Kevin have been so clueless? And by the way, I doubt very much that Kevin could have been tried as a juvenile after the horriffic crimes he committed carefully planned a few days before his 16th birthday. Eva is going to bring him home when his term is up? Good luck. Nature versus nurture is not the problem here. You have a kid who is a sociopath, and no one figures it out. Mom may have been spacey and conflicted about motherhood, but that does not spawn Kevins.

  15. I left out a word in the above reply — “get” before thorough — workups. As I said in the above, I never have read such a disturbing book that had so much missing in terms of seeking diagnoses, really taking a look at this kid, ignoring the most blatant behavior, attitudes, and manipulations. I don’t know what the author was trying to prove, but I do think that despite Kevin’s well-calculated final horrors, he would have been tried as an adult. No one is to blame, really, for Kevin. He is a sociopath. And mom’s ongoing lectures about America (hey, I don’t like SUVs either) and Dad’s total cluelessness didn’t make Kevin. We all are animals, although we don’t like to think of ourselves as such. Dogs, horses, cats, and humans can be born with neurological defects and psychological problems. Why everyone ignored Kevin is a total mystery to me. I have known many families (I am 71) that were dysfunctional as hell, but there were no Kevins.

  16. I’d love to find someone in my area (Walnut Creek, California) who has read this book and would like to discuss it with me.

  17. Hi Marisa, thanks for stopping by. I wish you lived near me as I think you’d be a wonderful addition to my book club! Plus I don’t know anyone in real life who has read this book. I passed it to a friend, but she hasn’t gotten around to it yet. I’m dying to discuss it in person, with anyone!!

    I agree with so much of what you said. Why didn’t they get him some help? I think Eva didn’t trust her parental instincts, and Franklin was just oblivious to Kevin’s psychosis-although some of it was so blatant.. like his masturbating with the door wide open, moaning loudly, making sure his mom could see- and when she tells Franklin, he downplays it and has a “Hey, Kev..” chat. Give me a FAT BREAK!! Oh, and don’t even get me started on what he did to Celia. How could they not see he was a sociopath? Eva knew, or seemed to know, and did nothing.. what mother would do nothing?

    You probably know that the author is not a mother herself.

  18. Ooh Lisa, you’re last sentence… No, I didn’t know. I don’t think I really wanted to know that. I do agree, this IS a book to discuss in person IRL. Which is interesting, too, isn’t it…

  19. Marisa, I’ve read the book and would meet you half way (I’m in Santa Rosa, CA)…I’ve discussed the book with my book club, but I don’t think that I could talk about this book enough!

  20. Trish, I have a cousin in Santa Rosa, and while the next few weeks are complicated (I had oral surgery; I have a dog who is being treated (by me, of course) for a bunch of weird skin problems, and, to top it all off, I have a horse at a rehab clinic(!). But when all of this has somewhat calmed down, I would be happy to meet with you, and then go on to see my cousin later. I’ll keep in touch. I have told the librarians at our little local library (none of whom has read, or even heard of, the book) and now there’s a buzz going on, so I hope some of them will read it or listen to it on CDs.


  21. My comment is above; a message to Trish.


  22. Trish and Marisa.. I hope you will let me know if you decide to hook up and discuss Kevin! Maybe you could put me on speaker phone so I can talk with you too. Send me an email!

  23. […] and no one had heard of them either:  We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (reviewed HERE) and Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (reviewed HERE) are books I enjoyed that were not […]

  24. […] I was reading something really intense, like THIS ONE, or thought provoking, like THIS ONE, or something beautifully written, like THIS ONE, or […]

  25. […] reviews of this book: Heather Lynne Raych Litlove Care Lisamm […]

  26. […] books i done read, litlove at Tales From the Reading Room, Care at Care’s Online Book Club, Lisamm at Books on the Brain, Bibliolatrist at Bibliolatry, and Dewey at The Hidden Side of a […]

  27. […] Harper Collins is sending the new Lionel Shriver called So Much For That (I still can’t get We Need to Talk About Kevin out of my mind years later!).  Then there’s a historical fiction novel about the Donner […]

  28. […] can read Lisa’s review here and/or Trish’s review here. (and the many more at Fyrefly’s book blog search. Lisa and […]

  29. Unlike a many people, I don’t think Eva would have been able to get help for Kevin. Firstly, he is a great manipulator since a young age.
    None of the doctors she took him to saw anything wrong with Kevin. Secondly, suggesting to Franklin that their child may be a sociopath and requires professional help would have ended their marriage on the spot. Eva says herself, she could live without the children but not without Franklin so I’m sure this was a huge deterrent for her. In fact, at the fear of losing her husband she was afraid to bring up even the smallest of things.

    I guess love really is blind because I didn’t like Franklin from the start. What a manipulative, blissfully ignorant prick. I particularly started to hate him after Celia was conceived.

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