25 October 2011

Actual Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

This is cheating. :D.  I wrote this review a long time ago. (Note: I use the term "review" loosely.) I've got piles of 'em. So, let's go with a motherhood theme for the next little while.

Feb. 6, 2010. Damn. This is one of the most frightening, frustrating books I've ever read. I'm a thirty-something woman planning motherhood, and Stephen King couldn't have scared me more. 

Why: This book gets a lot of praise, and I've loved the other books by Shriver that I've read.

This happily-married 37-year-old career woman has a baby because her husband wants one, and she resents the intrusion into her life. Whatever. That could be a million people. Some readers think that she's so horrible because she's cold to her uncuddly little sociopath Kevin from the beginning. I think she should have drowned him in the bathtub.

But, anyway, Shriver sure knows how to wield a pen so that the ink gets under your skin. The story just draws you in further, and the horror quotient creeps up as Kevin gets older and his mother grows increasingly powerless. His father's willful ignorance gets more and more alarming, and I just want to scream at the main character: Run, Eva, run!

Exceptionally well-done. A few flaws. I found the ending a bit implausible, but maybe not. It's very thought-provoking, but I don't want to provide spoilers.

As a nice tie-in, I found this article by Shriver re unlikeable characters on Slate this morning. (This is legal, right?)

Today's comments:

I once told my neighborhood bartender that the most controversial word in the English language (besides "God," probably) is "mother." Kevin lends validity to my theory. This book is, at base, about what we can expect from mothers, and what mothers expect of themselves. This isn't a book about the father, although he's there the whole time, too. Shriver said that it would have been irresponsible for her to have written the book if she had children.  I've pondered that. Does she mean that if her children ever read such a story by their own mother...yeah, I get it now.

Back to controversy. Ask ten different people about Kevin's mom and her part in making a sociopath and you'll get probably six different answers, at least. From what I gathered on LibraryThing chat boards, my opinion is a bit in the minority. But I don't really see why: absent extreme abuse, which did not occur--no abuse occurred, on the part of the parents anyway--, Kevin's extreme actions are his own.  And if maternal ambivalence can create a school shooter, we'd all have had one in our high schools.

So, really, what did Eva do that was so terrible? Full disclosure: my own mother is not a bit maternal, and look how well I turned out ;-)

UPDATE: I watched the trailer for the upcoming Kevin movie.  It look awesome, but I don't know if I'll be able to watch it. It would be like reading the book again, but worse, in a way. I got creeped out from two minutes of snaps and clips. How could I take a prolonged narrative? So torn.


  1. You've nearly sold me on giving Kevin a try. He sounds much different than the "Kevin" we got at just after he'd turned twelve, who'd most definitely been abused. Was Kevin born evil, you think? Is the novel thinly-veiled documentary of a specific case, or just her imagination, do you know? You make a compelling case for reading it, that's for sure.

    Oh, and btw, 60% of my blog's contents are comprised of refurbished LT reviews. You've gotta come up with the content from somewhere.

  2. M. le Freeque, it would be irresponsible of me to actually recommend that anyone read Kevin. It's a great book, but it's like recommending someone visit the Auschwitz site (to a much lesser degree, of course): undoubtedly it'll be a valuable experience, but does one want to be responsible for the emotional trauma that ensues?

    I don't think it was any particular case that Shriver was exploring. There's no indication that it came anywhere but from her imagination. Have you read any of her other stuff? She's good at getting down to the marrow of people.

    Yeah, it's lucky I've had an LT career going for awhile, now that I'm in the blogosphere.

  3. I promise I won't blame you for the ensuing PTSD if I ever read Kevin. I'm unfamiliar with Shriver's work, but how you describe her getting to the essence of us makes me want to read her. What's her best non-Kevin stuff?

    I regret not pacing myself with the LT reviews! I had about 100 when I began the blog, and used them all up in about six months time.

  4. I haven't read all of her stuff, but The Post-Birthday World is delightful: it's got a Sliding Doors premise, and follows a woman as she lives a parallel life, one with a man she feels safe and secure with, and another with whom she is passionately in love. Double Fault is a gut-wrenching look at the beauty of falling in love and getting married, and then participating in its demise.

    She's one of those authors whom I like so much that I don't want to read all of her stuff at once, you know what I mean?

  5. I think I do know what you mean. For me, that writer would be DFW: a writer whom though my all time favorite (though on the wane) there's still a couple of his I've yet read, purposely. He may be gone but I've still got stuff of his to discover -- and that it's important for a fan as you allude.