The simple question of “why?” sometimes has the hardest answer – “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver

July 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm 11 comments

We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, Published in 2003

This is a very difficult book to read – it is painfully honest and ends tragically. It is also written in such a way that it is compelling and, if you can handle the subject matter, it is a great read. It is really, really violent so please be prepared for that if you choose to read it.

Cover of "We Need to Talk About Kevin: A ...

Cover of We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel

This novel is written in the form of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin.  You know two things from the beginning of the book -Franklin and Eva are no longer together and on a Thursday a few years ago their son Kevin killed some of his classmates in a Columbine-like massacre.  The letters from Eva explore the couple’s life together before Kevin and then becomes a stark examination of Eva’s tumultuous relationship with motherhood and Kevin.

Through-out her letters Eva seems to be exploring what she did wrong as a mother while at the same time trying to figure out if Kevin was just born with something missing.  On the outside Eva seems to do everything right, she tries to find good child care and then she gives up an amazing career as a travel guide writer to be with Kevin. She has the money to give him everything he needs.  But Eva struggles with her lack of maternal instinct and seems to frequently live in a world of regret every time she makes a choice.  And Kevin is an angry baby who then turns into an emotionally removed child seemingly determined to withhold any parental joy Eva could find in their mother-son relationship.  Franklin is a doting father who is continually unwilling to even entertain that anything could be wrong with Kevin, except that Eva is too self-centered and lacking as a mother.  This makes Eva’s experience as a mother even more confusing and lonely.

Eventually the couple have second child, Celia. She is Eva’s attempt to redeem herself as a mother but as time goes on Celia just seems to become fodder for Kevin’s cruelty – including an incident where somehow Celia puts acid in her own eye. Of course as other things unfold there are signs that Kevin is destined to do something horrible, but these are the kind of signs that are only really clear with the power of hindsight.  After Kevin’s Thursday massacre, Eva is hounded by lawsuits questioning her parenting along with that ultimate question of “why? why did he do it?”  Which leads to the next question of “why didn’t you stop him?” or “raise him right?”  These are questions that Eva herself grapples with everyday.

This book hits right at the core of motherhood and the constant struggle between trying to be a good mother while not losing that woman you were before becoming a mother.  There is an important balance that each mother has to find for herself and if something goes wrong (even as simple as your three-year-old saying when you get home from work “I missed you”) then as a mother there is that immediate jump to “I am doing this wrong.”

Shriver is able to hone in on those parental feelings of inadequacy.  With the addition of an unsupportive husband and a child who is just not quite right, Shriver pens a very believable and harrowing story.  What propels the story forward is the question of “how can this happen” and “why?”  and the reader’s insistence that there must be a clear indicator of where it all it went wrong.  Because if we can answer that then we can avoid the problem, we can stop the violence. But Shriver does not make this an easy path for the reader and along the way it becomes clear that maybe there isn’t an answer. Maybe sometimes, with just the right mix, really awful things happen. And that is the scariest answer of all.


Entry filed under: July 2012 reads. Tags: , , , .

This is going to sting a bit – “Possesion” by A.S. Byatt Ah the good old days – “Past Imperfect” by Julian Fellowes

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Temmytemmy101  |  July 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    I readthis book in Grade 11 as part of my school,s curriculum! It is really one of the most painfully explicit books i have ever read. Yet somehow it manages not to be excruciating enough to make you drop it. A well written book, i appreciate the way in which the writer chose to order the journal/diary entries. Most of all i love the rhetoric the book leaves you with.

    • 2. Emily C  |  July 17, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Wow what a tough read for high school. But yes, I agree it is a painful read that manages amazingly to be hard to put down. I do think I need to read a few uplifting books as a follow-up though.

  • 3. Claire Ady  |  July 13, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Lionel Shriver is Queen of novels about complicated feelings. This is by far and away her best though. Everyone thinking of becoming a parent should read this and have a good, long think

    • 4. Emily C  |  July 17, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      I have not read anything else by her so if you have any suggestions please let me know.

  • 5. Claire 'Word by Word'  |  July 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I remember reading this for a bookclub and it provoking really interesting discussions about whether the mother was a good mother or not and whether she was in any way responsible for how her son turned out, frightening things to consider really.

    But an inspirational author, who wrote 7 novels before this one was published, her debut.

    • 6. Emily C  |  July 17, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      We read this for bookclub too – I think it is great for discussion. I do need to read some of her other books.

  • 7. englishteacherconfessions  |  July 15, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    That’s funny–we both blogged about this book on the same day. I’m glad you enjoyed it as well. Wonder if the film version is any good….

    • 8. Emily C  |  July 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      I watched the film and it was good – it is a little more harrowing to watch than read I thought. What are we reading next:)?

  • 9. Nella  |  July 16, 2012 at 10:41 am

    I have read the book, albeit a long time ago, and then recently saw the film. It, too, is shocking and painful to watch, but it is very, very good. If you enjoyed the book (as much as one can ‘enjoy’ it), then I would recommend the film. Like the book, it concentrates more on Eva’s struggle with herself as a mother and her relationship with Kevin, than the actual massacre itself.

    • 10. Emily C  |  July 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      I watched the film this last weekend. And I agree that it focused more on the relationship between mother and son. But I did like that it didn’t show everything because that is tough stuff.

  • […] BUT, then I read the last ten pages.  And I wanted to yell “please make it go away. why?????!!! WHY???!!!”  Sadly, this is what I will remember about the book, not the characters, not the message, just the terrible, terrible ending.  It might still be worth reading but you have been warned and there are always lots of other books to read. May I suggest “We should talk about Kevin”? […]


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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