There are books, and then there are BOOKS. BOOKS are not simply paper and ink; they are ideas, challenges, meditations, revolutions, and prayers. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a BOOK.
I realize I am a little late to the game in reading Lionel Shriver’s haunting masterpiece, but I felt I ought to read a classic Shriver novel before diving into her latest, Big Brother. Lucky for me, BOOKS also don’t have expiration dates. If anything, We Need to Talk About Kevin is more relevant today than when it was originally published in 2003. So buckle up, because a lot can be said about this one.
On the surface, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters written by a middle-aged woman, Eva, to her estranged husband, Franklin, after their son, Kevin, has been incarcerated for murdering select students and a teacher at his high school. But this book is far more than a compelling true crime read. It operates on deeper, more painful levels by asking: Who is at fault?
Shriver chooses not answer this question. Rather, she engages us even further by asking us to be the judge. Through her confessional letters, which are as searingly honest as they are confused, Eva reconstructs her life and the decisions that impacted it most, beginning with her choice to have a baby. To Eva, motherhood was a grand experiment, a way to add mystery and meaning to her life, something she could have done without, except that the idea made her husband so happy. So she got pregnant and immediately resented no longer being able to travel for her magazine, dance carelessly around the apartment, and drink; she hated being two people instead of a mobile, idiosyncratic one; she missed her freedom and having her husband to herself; she wondered if she’d made a mistake. Years later, after Kevin’s crimes escalate from incessant screaming to animal violence to massacre, Eva writes to Franklin, asking him if her hesitation toward motherhood acted as a fetal poison, permanently damaging the life growing within her. And then on the next page Eva takes it all back, outing Kevin as a hyper-intellectual, bored maniac—it’s no more her fault than anyone’s.
Despite Kevin’s name in the title, Eva is the star of this story, and it’s her inner workings in which we are completely submerged. Initially I found the contours of Eva’s mind difficult to inhabit. While I am not yet a mother, I’ll be audacious enough to say that I would NEVER hate my unborn child for being an inconvenience, I would NEVER call my darling son “a little shit,” and I most certainly would NEVER under any circumstances EVER launch him across the room like a rocket.
Or would I? Because Shriver’s real achievement in We Need To Talk About Kevin is crafting a character who wins you over despite yourself. Eva is abrasive and condescending and impulsive, but also wickedly smart and funny and 100% broken. We are introduced to her at 900 feet below rock bottom, stuck in a nightmare even Stephen King couldn’t write. There isn’t a single bad thing left to happen that we could wish upon her, so the only thing left to do is to hear her out. And somewhere along the way, she got me. I began to reconsider what I knew about myself, my marital yearnings, my biological clock. Suddenly, there was so much I didn’t know.