BFTA Review: Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin


Title: We Need to Talk about Kevin
Author: Lionel Shriver
Obtained: borrowed from library||image from google search
Counterpoint (Perseus Books Group)
Rating: 4/5

Eva never really wanted to be a mother and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails. (

WARNING: There may be spoilers for some parts of the novel. I didn’t spoil the ending, but I did include a couple of quotes.

I have to say, school shootings are a thing for me. So when I found out this book was, loosely, about a school shooting, I had to grab it from the library while I had a chance. I will tell you now that I can remember where I was when both Columbine and the Virginia Tech shootings took place. I remember watching the coverage from VT while I was in college myself.
It’s more than just “what an asshole”, or “what a coward.” Maybe, for me, my interest doesn’t stem from condemning someone else, but from understanding why. Kevin, towards the end, gives his most honest answer to his mother:

“I used to think I knew,” he said glumly. “Now I’m not so sure.” (p. 397)

I want to talk about Kevin more, but I want to talk about his family, first. It’s so interesting to watch a family fall apart. I don’t mean that in a way that makes it sound fabulous; I know first hand it’s not. But it is, from an outsider’s perspective, interesting to see just which straw breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

For Franklin, Eva’s husband, it’s the fact that Eva just can’t see the good in Kevin. Franklin, I believe, sees with the glasses of (familial) love. He is much to taken with his first born to really believe that Kevin could ever do anything bad. Since the entire book is written from Eva’s perspective, we don’t really see his motivations; just why he refuses, insofar as to put on proverbial blinders, to see that Kevin is not that wholesome, good boy that Franklin so desperately wants him to be.

To be honest, Franklin kind of irritated me. He wanted so much control over Eva, always complaining about her job, about Eva’s independence from him, that he just came off as a man who didn’t feel like a man. He wasn’t the bread-winner; Eva was. It was Eva’s job that kept them in financial comfort. Franklin grasped at straws in order to feel like he mattered; after all, how much could he matter if Eva kept galavanting about the world, doing precious research that, according to Franklin, could have been handled by her colleagues, had she desired to stay home or pass off some of her work.

Eva, on the other hand, was very driven. She came from a home where her mother was afraid to step out of the house; Eva had to grow up very quickly. Eva fought Franklin every step of the way, until she agreed to have a child with him. She was miserable during her pregnancy (thanks, at least in part, to Franklin hovering over her and taking all the joy out of her life), and Kevin was a difficult child. Of course, Eva felt like she was a bad mother; a failure.

The only disagreement I would have had was when Eva “oops!”‘d Franklin. I am not at all in in agreement with her dishonesty, especially when someone else’s life is involved. In this case, not only were Eva and Franklin involved, but they not only had to think about the new baby, but also Kevin.

I wasn’t sure how to react to Celia. She doesn’t appear in much of the novel, and I’ve never met a child like her, so afraid of everything. I couldn’t relate to her character at all.

Kevin, however, is a different monster all together.

It is shown from the beginning he is, at the very least, a very quick learner. He learns that by throwing his toys out of his crib and screaming bloody murder, someone will come and put the toys back, only to have him do the exact same thing minutes later. By the time he’s in high school, he is writing essays using only three-letter words. However, we know he has an impressive vocabulary, since he constantly tests his high school English teacher.

What’s interesting, however, is how many people can relate to him. Finding things to interest you in life can be difficult. Having to feign interest, as Kevin does time and time again with Franklin, can be tiring. Being bored can be tiring, and I’m sure Kevin was bored a lot by the end of his (almost) sixteen years as a free child.

Kevin doesn’t have many friends; whether that’s because people are afraid of him, or because he is simply selective of his friends (more the latter, I think, considering how manipulative he is), we don’t really know. He isn’t quite a loner, but he doesn’t socialize with the Popular crowd, either. He is somehow in between.

Kevin’s anger, too, is interesting, mostly because it doesn’t seem to have a target, or stem from anything in particular. You could also look at it like Kevin is angry at the world itself, perhaps because he exists, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He is so disinterested in everything, there’s no guarantee, at least for Kevin, that there is anything in existence that will capture his attention and keep him enthralled more than passing a ball back and forth with Mumsey a few times.

Even this is futile; Kevin seems to recognize early on that a lot of things people do in life are simply a waste of time. Kevin is all about making the most of his time. But he focuses so intently on archery; it’s hard to believe that Kevin had been planning the massacre for years. It’s more likely that he realized that he had the resources to do it, and so he did it.

The relationship between Eva and Kevin, more specifically the relationship between them after Kevin is incarcerated, is particularly interesting to me. Eva, despite holding firm in her belief that Kevin hates her, still visits him every other weekend in prison. Their conversations are stilted, awkward, until that last visit. Kevin is finally himself, as if he is tired of playing the charade of disinterested prisoner.

Kevin’s reaction during his little “biography” interview, when questioned about his mother, is probably the most interesting segment in the entire novel. It’s short, maybe a page long, but it offers so much insight into what Kevin really feels about his mother, it’s incredible. Eva is the only person Kevin won’t talk about. He doesn’t want to talk about her at all. He praises her; practically commends her on her travels, says he used to wander into the book store to see her travel guides sitting on the shelves.

“‘She’s been all over the world, know that? You can hardly name a country where she hasn’t got the t-shirt. Started her own company…. I used to cruise into Barnes and Noble in the mall just to look at all those books. Pretty cool.” (p. 353)

At this point I started really questioning how Kevin felt about his mother. Up until this point, Eva has painted a picture of a boy who hates his mother; he constantly tested her at every turn, pushing the limits to see what would set her off. But the truth is, Eva was the only person Kevin could be himself with. He did not have to feign interest in something banal; he didn’t have to try to bond, and deal with the obnoxious younger sibling. He was honest with his mother, and she was honest back. He told her, flat out, to her face, that she was a hypocrite for denouncing things she had never tried. And she accepted this, and moved on.

To be honest, this book was really hard to start. Eva’s narration in her letters is all over the place. Once Kevin comes into play, the whole story changes, and you start to pick sides. Who’s right, Eva or Franklin? Is Kevin really an evil child, or is he just begging for the freedom to be a boy? I didn’t side with either of them; I sided with Kevin, because (and I really hate saying this) I understood him, to a degree.

I could go on and on, breaking down the relationship between Kevin and all of his family, and what little we see of his friends. But I won’t. Overall, I really loved this book. I just wish I hadn’t felt like I needed to have a dictionary by my side sometimes.

Originally posted 08 November 2010.


One thought on “BFTA Review: Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin

  1. Pingback: March 2013 Recap | Before Midnight

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