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- Anna Quindlen

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin tie-in: A Novel (P.S.) - Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin, while not the best novel I’ve read in 2014, is certainly the most gripping, the one that had me turning pages late into the night and frustrating me all day at work when I couldn’t be reading it. And, as the title declares, it’s the one I feel most compelled to talk about.


Kevin is a domestic horror story, similar in a lot of ways to Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, which I read earlier this year (2014 being the year of demon babies, apparently). In both, the protagonist is a woman who is living her perfect life. In The Fifth Child, homey Helen is busily creating a domestic paradise with her husband and her four children, hoping to have at least four more. Kevin’s Eva is a wealthy entrepreneur with no great interest in having children, deliriously happy in her urban life with her husband Franklin. And then in both stories, the women give birth to a monster who utterly destroys everything they hold dear.


Kevin opens with Eva – alone, poor, isolated, shattered – writing letters to her estranged husband about her life post-Thursday (which is the only title she can give to the day their son, Kevin, shot nine people to death in his school). Kevin is now in prison, Franklin has taken their other child, Celia, and Eva is left to deal (poorly) with the aftermath. In riveting flashbacks, Eva describes how Kevin had always been a calculating sociopath, from the day he was born – methodically destroying Eva’s life but somehow seeming innocent and normal to his father and everyone else. It’s either the most stupendous feat of gaslighting ever achieved by a toddler, or something else is going on. The brilliance of this novel is that you never really know.


Who is at Fault?


Apparently, interpretations of this book are split between those who view Eva as an innocent victim of a monstrous son, and those who believe Kevin’s monstrousness is a result of Eva’s coldness and ambivalence toward him his entire life. We only see Eva’s side of the story, but even so she reveals herself to be a selfish, irritable woman with little interest in being a mom. Still, she is mindful and well-meaning in her approach to parenthood, and unshrinking in confronting this question head-on, wrestling constantly with whether and how much to blame herself. In the end, though, I don’t think it matters to what degree Eva was a “good” or a “bad” mother – if any kind of terrible parenting assumes culpability for a teenage school-shooter, it would have to be far beyond the level of ambivalence, frustration, fear, and even dislike evinced by Eva. Kevin had a loving father and sister, and every opportunity to meet his mother halfway. I just can’t blame Eva in this.


So What is This Story Really About?


Primarily, I think this is a horror story hinging on the fear of becoming a parent. Not just: What could go wrong? but: What could I cause to go wrong, simply because the thought of parenthood makes me ambivalent and afraid? And also: What if this child will be able to see right through me? The whole story revolves around the fact (or maybe just Eva’s self-fulfilling fear) that from the moment he is born, Kevin is on to her. He knows that she resents him for taking her away from a career and lifestyle that she loves, for driving a wedge between her and Franklin, for transforming her from powerful woman to impotent mommy. And don’t so many women feel that way, to one degree or another? Afraid that we would be miserable, terrible parents? That we will dislike or resent any child we might produce – and that the child will know it, no matter how we try to cover it up? I’ve had those thoughts. They’re one of the reasons I’m not keen on having children any time soon. Kevin is, more than anything, an embodiment of that fear – and as a result, from day one he is on a mission to destroy Eva’s life. And he succeeds.


Franklin the Dupe


One of the most heartrending things about this story is the way Kevin destroys Franklin and Eva’s marriage. Franklin seems to suffer none of the ambivalence and dread Eva feels toward having a child – but then, he is not the one who will be expected to give up the career he loves, and the thought of leaving New York City for a suburban McMansion pleases rather than horrifies him. He can be a parent for a few hours at a time, swooping in for the fun stuff, games of catch and trips to the zoo, then go back to his life blissfully ignorant of Kevin’s true personality. This is a luxury Eva never has.


So from the beginning, Franklin is portrayed as the loving but clueless parent (“Dad the dupe”), who paints Kevin into the role of the happy son he’s always wanted and never notices any cracks in the veneer. Whenever Eva insinuates that anything is wrong, he lashes out at her angrily and insists that she is the problem. Franklin loves the idea of being a family man so much that he is totally blind to the horrifying reality he is living. Maybe he could be forgiven for not perceiving Kevin’s true persona (Kevin is a master pretender, after all), but can he be forgiven for his cruel treatment of Eva, his refusal to take her seriously? I don’t think so. In some ways, I think Franklin is Eva’s true antagonist in the novel, because he is the one she so desperately struggles to win over. She and Kevin are in competition for Franklin’s love and loyalty, which can, it seems, only be awarded to one. And she loses.


Was Thursday All About Eva?


Late in the book, Kevin refers to the shooting as a performance, and Eva the audience. Assuming this statement is not just more of his bullshitting after-the-fact, what reaction was he hoping Thursday would provoke in his mother? I think it was an act of spite more than anything, a way to lash out against her for… whatever he perceives her failures to be with respect to him. For not wanting him? For not loving him? Does he really just want her attention after all?


Or is it something both colder and emptier – is he just a sociopath so bored by life that only carnage can hold his interest? Is he even capable of human feeling? Was Eva even really a major component of his motivation, or just a plaything whose buttons he pushes to stave off the boredom of prison? In any case, it is only AFTER Thursday that Eva confesses to loving her son. Does she recognize herself in him?


Why Have Children?


Eva suspects and fears that nothing is really important in life. Her desire to have a child, so far as it went, was about having something to talk about and pay attention to, more than anything – a desire for life to have a story. Kevin is a pure distillation, then, of those fears. His lack of interest in doing anything robs Eva of any interesting “stories” – until, of course, he gives her the most terrible one imaginable on Thursday, revealing the awful shallowness of that desire in full. After all, aren’t most stories only interesting because something bad happens to their characters?


Eva’s other desire, to find meaning in her life via parenthood, is also denied by Kevin; his mere existence cries out for explanation rather than explaining anything in itself. So maybe Kevin also exists to reveal these petty desires for what they are – empty, bad reasons for procreating.


But what about Franklin? He wants – genuinely – to be a dad, have a family, live the American dream. He is committed to Kevin 100% -- and he is still destroyed in the aftermath. Because maybe his dreams and goals are empty, too. This is a very nihilistic viewpoint, and maybe the book is actually asking: Are there really any good reasons to procreate, any expectations worthy of laying on a baby in this day and age? Maybe this sort of novel could only have been written by a childless person (as Shriver is). Maybe we are the only ones who entertain these big hypotheticals, parents having moved on to deal with realities.


And then there’s Celia, Kevin’s sweet, loving younger sister. She is everything her mother wanted: proof that Eva is capable of love, and a receptacle for that love. Quiet and good, never causing a fuss or demanding attention – a perfect human “accessory”. The kind of personality-less child that easily slots into an existing life, the kind of child Eva wanted. Franklin despises her. Why? Because he sees her existence (rightly) as an incarnation of Eva’s desire to wash the slate clean after Kevin, start fresh with a new model? Perhaps.


Is Everyone in this Book a Terrible Person?


Kevin is, of course, though I think of him more as a device than a character – almost as an inhuman force that cannot inspire any empathy. So I think I hated Franklin the most, for his cruelty and stupidity, which were all too human. Celia you can’t hate, but you can’t love either; she is a blank and a bore. And Eva – I saw a lot of myself in Eva, in her fears and her pettiness, in her selfishness. Is it petty and selfish to love your carefree life and not want to change it? To be ambivalent about having children, to accept the fact that you may not be cut out for (or interested in) parenting? I don’t really think so. I think Eva’s primary weakness was her unreasonable love for Franklin, which drove her to give up everything that meant anything to her in life, that fired so much of her resentment toward Kevin. If only she had left him, or stood up for what she truly wanted from the beginning.


Why Do We Need to Talk About Kevin?


This book is a look at middle-class American families in the 21st century, exposing a lot of feelings and fears that are not often discussed. Are our lives so broken that the simple thought of bringing a new child into them inspires horror and loathing? Or is the expectation that we all must marry, bear children, and move out to the suburbs in keeping with some obsolete American dream the real nightmare? Maybe this book is a warning of the lingering poison that seeps out of us and taints our whole world when we let ourselves be coerced into making choices we don’t truly want to make. Even when we do it for love.


(2014 #16)