We Need to Talk About Kevin (2002)

Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a nice book. It is a story about being a mother, but it does not comfort, nor does it evoke feelings of warmth or maternal love. It was never meant to. Nothing about Kevin is “nice,” but it is a great novel because it engages the reader: For better or worse, it would be nearly impossible to read it without some sort of visceral reaction. Lionel Shriver (an unapologetic feminist) does not shy away from exploring the dark, uncomfortable areas of human existence. And that is what makes her such a powerful writer, and what makes We Need to Talk About Kevin a unique literary achievement.

The novel is narrated through a series of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin. Eva is a pretentious, privileged New Yorker who has founded her own series of travel guides for the penny-pinching, jet-setting bourgeoisie. Some readers took issue with Eva’s absurdly flowery language. It is important to distinguish the voice of the protagonist from the voice of the author: They are Eva’s words, not Lionel Shriver’s. Eva is not particularly likable or even sympathetic. Her formerly unencumbered lifestyle filled with exotic global adventures has been demoted to not only the mundane tasks of domestic life and motherhood, but to being a parent to a child who could only be described as evil incarnate. With that, the reader is able to produce a kernel of sympathy for Eva’s burden–a burden named Kevin.

Some reviewers say they had trouble getting through the novel; I’m of the opposite opinion. I could hardly stop reading, even delaying work on my finals to finish it. Eva’s misery was simultaneously riveting and horrifying. For someone who shares Eva’s ambivalence about the possibility of motherhood, Kevin reads as a nightmarish embodiment of all the reasons not to procreate, the ultimate cautionary tale. Becoming a parent is a tremendous sacrifice even with the most angelic of children; with a child like Kevin, it was clearly a choice that brought Eva nothing but despair and grief, exacerbated by her optimistic and infuriatingly oblivious husband, Franklin. While I had to suspend my belief that anyone (even someone condescending and pretentious as Eva) would write so many verbose letters and expect the recipient to actually read them, the format of the letters to Franklin serves as a distinct literary device that Shriver employs to unfold the story from Eva’s perspective. Shriver’s use of the second person helps to drive home all the bitterness and resentment she holds against Franklin, rooted in that fateful decision for her to become pregnant.

The true horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t in its face-value tragedy: The sudden and brutal slaying of a dozen or so students along with a well-meaning faculty member in a high school. What is truly, deeply chilling is the unthinkable notion that it is possible not to love our children. This is a daring theme to address, and perhaps it is Shriver’s childlessness that enabled her to build the character of Kevin without inhibition. I watched an interview with her where she talks about how some people thought that since Shriver didn’t have children, she had no “right” to write about such a controversial topic. As she explains in the interview, it is precisely that circumstance that allowed her to freely explore this dark emotional universe. Such is also the beauty of fiction writing: We can be whoever we want to be.

Some readers might feel compelled to wonder: Was Kevin born evil? Or was it Eva’s failing as a mother that made him so? The classic nature vs. nurture debate. For me, there was never much of a question: There was something malevolent about Kevin from the moment Eva holds him after delivering him. She describes the unsettling behavior displayed in Kevin’s childhood, revealing the breadth of Kevin’s malice with each searing letter. There is an admirable honesty about Eva. She struggles with her decisions, her position in the world, and the shadow Kevin’s actions leave on the remainder of her life. Eva is smart, worldly, and before Kevin, had an incredibly strong sense of who she was. Motherhood robbed her of that. She tries to take it back at various points throughout the novel, perhaps most memorably when she papers the walls of the study in the new house with maps–symbolic of her attempting to make her life her own again. And Kevin, just a toddler, sprays over it with his squirt gun filled with Eva’s India ink, as if to say: I’ve taken your life, and I will always be a stain on it.

As much as I would love to discuss the plot twists that make the novel even more compelling and disturbing, I am reluctant to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read the novel (or seen the film) and wants to. Suffice it to say, many moments in We Need to Talk About Kevin left me aghast and breathless. I marveled not only at the shocking, unsettling events or Kevin’s creepy mannerisms, but at Shriver’s ability to so eloquently capture the complexity of emotions in a single character; that she renders Eva so dimensionally human. For me, that was where the novel hit home–in its conveyance of human authenticity.