Book 53: We Need To Talk About Kevin


 "I'm no longer sure whether I rued our first child before he was even born. It's hard for me to reconstruct that period without contaminating the memories with the outsized regret of later years, a regret that bursts the constraints of time and gushes into the period when Kevin wasn't there yet to wish away." 

Dates read: May 14-18, 2016

Rating: 10/10

Columbine happened when I was in the eighth grade. I remember how it rocked all of us (the students, our parents, the teachers) in the small town I grew up in, the kind of place (like Littleton, Colorado, probably once thought) where it seemed like bad things just didn't happen. There was a brief security craze, where we had to have our backpacks searched on our way into school every day for a few weeks or a month or so, but eventually that died down and normality more or less resumed. I know that Dylan Klebold's mother recently wrote a book about her experience with her son before the shooting and what happened afterwards. I've read some good reviews, even, but I can't find much interest in actually picking it up. It seems too raw, too real. Fifteen years later, but it's still too soon somehow.

But I was interested in picking up Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, a fictionalized account of a mother's life before and after her son perpetrated a hideous act of school violence. There's just something about real life actual tragedy that's harder to read about, even if it's much less graphic than a fictionalized account. I've read one book about a sexual assault survivor's experience (Alice Sebold's Lucky, which was mandatory reading for a college class or else I likely would never have thought about reading it), but several novels about the same kind of thing without blinking an eye. Fiction, it would seem (at least for me) draws a veil between the reader and the story recounted that insulates it a little, even when the book is about things (like rape) that are horrifyingly commonplace and may well have been inspired by an author's own experience.

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, main character Eva Khatchourian isn't a very good mother. She would (and does) admit that freely. She never had a burning need or desire to be a mother; she was mostly content with her marriage to Franklin Plaskett, their life in New York City, and her position as founder and CEO of A Wing And A Prayer, a series of backpack travel guides. But all her friends were having kids, and Franklin really wanted one, and she'd been feeling like her life needed a bit extra spark for a while, so she agrees to have a child. It's rough from the start: she chafes at the restrictions foisted upon her as a pregnant woman, she has a long and difficult labor, and when Kevin is finally born, he refuses to nurse or even drink her breast milk from a bottle. She suffers from post-natal depression, and when Kevin proves to be difficult at best throughout his entire childhood, she fails to bond with him. Not only that, but as he grows up, she comes to see malice behind nearly all of his actions and regard him with suspicion and fear. Just before his sixteenth birthday, he kills a teacher and several classmates at school. So she was right about him all along...wasn't she?

Eva, whose story is told by Shriver as a series of letters from her to Franklin a year or two after Kevin's school rampage, is a classic unreliable narrator. While she's unafraid of presenting herself in a negative light or admitting fault, she's also our only source of information about Kevin. The incidents she relates about his conduct are often unsettling and worrisome...but they're hand-selected, by a woman who has had all her worst thoughts about her offspring confirmed by what he did. But while there were plenty of people Kevin alienated throughout his life besides his mother (a succession of childhood nannies, kids in his play groups, school classmates), Kevin did have people in his corner, most significantly his father, as well as a high school teacher who ended up among his victims.

The question the novel raises and never answers (but gives you lots of food for thought in both directions along the way) is the age old one: nature or nurture? Kevin was difficult from the moment he was born, but if he'd been able to bond with his mother, would he have been just plain difficult, instead of a murderer? Eva herself is prickly and sometimes, even often, unlikeable. Maybe he just takes after his mother that way. How much does Kevin's pushing back against her result from her aloofness and reserve from him? On the other hand, if he is truly evil, like she sees him and his own murders tend to indicate, what could she have done to change that? Eva and Franklin cared, were present, took an active interest in him and his life. There are a lot of kids who don't even have that. I found myself changing opinions as I read, sympathizing with Eva, then Kevin, back and forth. Shriver doesn't let either of them off the hook, nor should she. There's plenty of culpability to go around. This sucked me in and haunted me after it was done. I'm sure I'll continue to think about it in the future. It's disturbing subject matter, but it's phenomenally well-written and I highly recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...nature or nurture?

One year ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

6 comments

  1. Wow - I really really want to read this. I remember loving Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult years ago and this is somewhat of a similar theme. I've had this one on my TBR for so long that I'd forgotten what it was about. Thanks for reminding me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not the easiest read, but it's just incredibly well-written. I had a really hard time putting it down to go to bed because I didn't want to stop reading it...but maybe it wasn't the best pre-sleep material material, now that I think about it

      Delete
  2. 60 years of observation has led me to the conclusion that it's about half and half. We seem to only identify the 'nature' component in negative circumstances, and to ascribe a positive contribution from genes all to good parenting, teaching, or other nurturing. My two cents.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree...there's definitely a little bit of both! And that it seems like when bad things happen, we lean really hard towards nature and good things towards nurture, when it's probably a blend of each in each.

      Delete
  3. I've heard really good things about this book. I am glad that you enjoyed it as well. I hope that I get a chance to read it soon - your review makes me want to pick it up ASAP!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a hard read in terms of subject matter, but an addicting read nevertheless.

      Delete