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.