Friday, January 14, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver — 400 pgs


Book CoverIn this epistolary novel, Eva Katchadourian is writing a series of letters to her husband Franklin after the horror of her teenage son's violent massacre of several high school classmates. Reaching into the past, Eva chronicles, in a series of lucid and disturbing flashbacks, the evolution of a wealthy yuppie couple who are deciding if they want to have a child. Eva is a jet-setter, constantly traveling the world in order to research accommodations for a series of travel books she publishes, while Franklin is a scenic location scout working in marketing. Though they both do want a child, it's for very different reasons, and though Franklin is enthused with the idea, Eva harbors reservations about what having a child will do to her marriage and her sense of independence. When Kevin is born, it's clear to Eva, if not Franklin, that something is very wrong with him. Able to scream furiously and ferociously for hours, Kevin proves to be a difficult infant who grows up to be a secretive, cold and calculating child. Though Eva readily admits that she may not be an award-winning mother and is often distant and emotionally unavailable with Kevin, as he grows older, he becomes what can only be described as a psychopath. Though Eva sees this, Franklin is unable to realize the type of maliciousness that Kevin harbors deep inside, and Eva's constant recrimination of the boy sets the couple on a very rocky path. The two are constantly at each other's throats over the boy and are destroying each other's lives, much to young Kevin's amusement. When Eva gets pregnant with a second child in order to prove to herself that she can be a good mother and to have another ally against Franklin and Kevin, the boy's wicked and brutal behavior begins to escalate to a frightening degree. All this culminates with the bloody rampage that Kevin meticulously plans at the high school gym, and to the reader's shock and horror, we discover the magnitude of what Eva lost that day. In this frightening and disconcerting novel, the reader witnesses the birth and adolescence of a killer who expertly manipulates the emotions of the family that surrounded him and tried so hard to nurture him.

This is a book I've been hearing very good things about for quite a long time, though I had thought it wouldn't be all that interesting to me for a lot of reasons. But as time went on and I heard more and more about it, I realized that perhaps I was missing something by letting this one go unread. Though I know this type of violence in schools is not only prevalent but important, I couldn't imagine wanting to read a book that centered around this topic. What I discovered is not only is Shriver a penetrating and arresting author, but that this story has more to do with the frightening daily evolution of a very damaged person than the violence he perpetrates. It was not only disquieting, but ultimately terrifying and chilling as well.

One of the most interesting things about the book was the fact that all of the characters were somewhat repellent to me for various reasons. Eva was cold and distant, not only to Kevin but in certain ways to her husband as well. She seemed very arrogant at times and was definitely elitist. At times I wondered how Kevin couldn't help but turn out as he did with a mother like Eva, but at the heart of it all, there was something very human about her that drew me to her. Although I didn't like her, I could understand her perfectly. Kevin was repugnant for obvious reasons. A brutal personality, a penchant for human discomfort and destruction even at the earliest stages, I not only hated him but he scared me. The ambivalence he showed towards human suffering, and indeed his creation of it in others, made my heart and stomach shrivel inside me, and as he grew he only became more and more malevolent. Franklin too was rather unlikable. He repeatedly stuck to the belief that Kevin was a normal boy, even when facts to the contrary were laid right out in front of them. The one thing I hated most about Franklin is he never gave his wife's worries about Kevin any credence, and indeed, even fought with her over her "mistaken feelings" about the boy. He did this in front of Kevin and even joined the boy in making fun of her at times, in a fruitless attempt to bond with the boy. The funny thing is, even though I hated all the characters, it didn't impede me from being connected to them or their stories, which speaks to Shriver's skill at spinning such an incredible yarn.

One thing that I would be very remiss if I didn't mention was the incredible fluid writing. Shriver's skill with words and ideas is striking and beautiful. At times I had to put the book down and marvel over her ability to tease out so much meaning from one simple sentence, and there were many passages that I read over and over again in a state of awe. The writing borders on the poetic, but not in a florid or showy way. Rather, there's an intrinsic power and force to her words, a building up of thoughts and ideas into a crescendo of unbearable tension and wicked loveliness that not only impressed me, but drew me further and further into the story she tells. It was odd to have such a inspired response to the writing when the story being told was one of violence, hatred and ambivalence. As I read on and became more and more invested in the world that Shriver was creating, I felt almost as if I was being pulled down a rabbit hole of deviance and defiance. The beauty and fluidity of the writing and the terror and horror of the subject matter certainly presented me with a dichotomy, but by melding these two elements so seamlessly, the tale almost takes on a life of its own.

It was hard to read about Kevin's growing obsession with other notorious teens who went on bloody rampages in their own schools. Kevin touted opinions and details on them all, and throughout the book, his behavior towards them took on some frightening aspects. It was clear he was attempting to emulate them, only Kevin, in his meticulous way, wanted to be better, to make it more of a challenge and to have a higher body count. I can only describe all this as chilling, and although Franklin and Eva both seemed to want to ignore Kevin's growing fascination with this alien subset of people, it stood out to me in alarming and potentially dangerous ways. Throughout the book, which is told in a series of flashbacks, Shriver embeds these stories within the story of the Katchadourian family, sharing the details of school massacres far and wide, the tally of bodies they yielded and what the eventual punitive outcome would be. I honestly had no idea this type of thing happened so frequently, and it almost put me in a stupor of fear. I mean, I have kids who are at this stage in life, and to think that one of their classmates might be capable of doing something like made me a bit panic stricken. Shriver most movingly explains, through her exposé on Kevin, how these types of things happen and just how the ones left behind react when the violence rains down.

This was my first read of the new year, and while I found it lyrically impressive and tautly suspenseful, I also found it made me quite nervous and upset. While I was reading it, I had some very confusing sensations of doom and I was altogether a little jumpy. It was a brilliant book, made more powerful and poignant by its skillful rendering and also by its relevance, but it was also very disturbing and could at times strongly graphic. It was a fantastic read, and one that I'll never forget, but I warn you that it's not for the faint of heart and those who are easily disconcerted may want to avoid this one. A very realistic depiction of a subject that needs to be addressed, but in that realism also comes unexpected terror.

29 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've read good things about this book too, but I think, like you, it would make me nervous and upset! Great review!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Haha! Well you summarized my thoughts exactly! I'd first read The Post Birthday World by Shriver, and will forever be on my list of Best Of books ever. So I knew I was in for cleverness (she is SO DAMNED CLEVER). But I read the whole book feeling like I was going to throw up. It is hard to say "this is the best book I've read this year" with the topics that are covered, but in a twisted way, maybe it was. It is a book I will never ever forget.

Erin said...

Wow, what a great review -- thank you! I had heard of this book but had no idea what it was about. It sounds horrifying, all the more so because it sounds like it's written in a terrifyingly realistic way. I'll be honest -- intrigued as I am by the writing, I'm not sure it's the book for me. I've never been one for the "true crime" sort of book, to which this one sounds eerily similar. Perhaps I'll try another of Shriver's books instead.

Steph said...

I'm glad to hear that after mustering your courage to read this one it did not disappoint! It's one of those books that I think has flaws, but is so provocative that it is impossible not to have some reaction to. I think I had more issues with the writing than you did, but even so, I knew I had to keep this one once I was done. I definitely want to reread it at some point because I think Shriver raises so many interesting and difficult questions with it.

Jenny said...

Wow, great review! I had this book at one point but I think I donated it to the library. I sort of wish I'd read it but then maybe it's not so bad I didn't. That's one of my fears of having children... having a child who is out of control that I can't just use good parenting on, lol.

Darlene said...

Great review Heather. Like you this is one I've heard is well worth reading but I've always thought it wasn't for me. Your review has changed that for me. I think I am going to read it. It sounds disturbing but at the same time a fascinating read if that makes sense.

Vasilly said...

Wow! Another great review. I think that's one of the scary things about books of this subject matter when you're a parent: that kids like this exist and are so willing to hurt others.

Suko said...

Excellent review, Zibileee. I am sure reading this would make me (and most readers) anxious. I don't know that I want to read about fictional psychopaths--we live in a violent world; the recent shootings in Tuscon attest to that. And I see some parallels here.

Who is to blame for Kevin?
Eva, for having ambivalent feelings about having a child?
Her husband, for not listening to his wife's worries and for mocking her?
Nature, for allowing such a life into our world?
Society or our culture, for accepting and even glamorizing violence?
Or Kevin himself?
This book must raise a lot of important questions.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Hmmm, I've also been a bit wary of this book based on the topic but your review is making me reconsider. I think I'll probably need to be in the right place to really appreciate it. Great, thoughtful review, as always.

Amy said...

Oh Heather, you've made it sound completely unmissable! I must read it ASAP! Excellent review.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a book I have to read. Our society needs to figure out a way to handle individuals like that BEFORE they explode. When my son was in middle school, there was a student there who worried me, so I went to talk to the school's counselor, assuming it would be confidential. It wasn't, and the whole thing blew up in my face. The last I heard, that young man is obsessed with guns.

Suzanne said...

Nice review --
I agree with you that none of the characters were very likeable; I found it hard to be sympathetic to anyone. Nonetheless, it was a well written novel.

Melissa M said...

I've heard that this is a good, but difficult read. The sheer size of it has me put off though. I've had it on my shelf forever and just keep skipping it.

Jenners said...

Excellent review! I read this book a few years back and it just shook me to the core. Like you said, it is very disturbing but so well-written that you are so wrapped up in what happens, is happening. This was the second book I read by Shriver. The first one, The Post-Birthday World, is excellent too and is a very different book than this one. I would highly recommend it if you haven't read it already.

I hope the effects of this book wear off soon ... not the best way to start out the year, I think.

Jenny said...

Great review -- I've just read a book about Columbine and I can't decide if that makes this the perfect time to read this book, or the worst time possible. Also, I find it far less disturbing to read about psychopaths in nonfiction than fiction -- I think because nonfiction talks about what HAS happened and fiction talks about what DOES happen, the latter being much more alarming.

softdrink said...

I never wanted to read this for all of the reasons you mentioned...too chilling and the characters...urg! From what I've read about Eva, I don't think I could stand her.

Nymeth said...

I need to read this! I love what you said about connecting with the story even if you disliked the characters personally. This does sound upsetting, but also like an extraordinary book.

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I'm reading this later this year as part of my "read all the Orange Prize winners project" in 2011. This one I'm most looking forward to I think, but I didn't realize it was told in letters. I read her latest book this year and loved it. It was emotionally affecting too, but everyone says ...Kevin is better, so I'm intrigued!

Trisha said...

I agree that it really shows skill when you can despise the characters but still connect with the book!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Heather, you are a reading machine this year! LOL This is one book that I've been meaning to read. Excellent review as usual.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I do have this book, but for some reason I haven't picked it up. It sounds great. I will have to try it out sometime soon.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Wow! My SIL was reading this when I saw her at Christmas, and she said much the same, it was wonderfully written, and left her with terrible chills.

I believe a "great" book stays with us, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN definitely will stay with you. I think I'll have to wait until warmer/sunnier weather to read this ...

Marie said...

I'm adding this to my wishlist right away. It sounds terrific. I like books that shake you up a little.

TheBookGirl said...

This is one that I don't think I can read; put me in the easily unsettled category.
Clearly an important subject, and your review is particularly timely given recent events.

Wonderful, thorough review as always Heather.

Literary Feline said...

Another book I really want to read. I was thinking of reading this one along with Columbine, Nineteen Minutes and The Hour I First Believed and make it a sort of theme month. That might be a bit depressing though.

I've heard such great things about Shriver's writing. I look forward to reading her book (and maybe her others) one of these days.

Great review, Heather! As always, I really feel like I get to know a book better through your words.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Like you, it's a book that I feel I'm missing out on if I don't read it. I've heard so many wonderful things about it, and I am a little afraid to read it, just based on the subject alone.

Anna said...

Great review! This book does pack an emotional punch and I felt uneasy reading it, too. To be honest, it took me about 120 pages to really get into the story because I didn't really like Eva, but I'm glad I stuck with it. This book really blew me away, and it gives you so much to think about and discuss.

Care said...

I was totally surprised at the ending, too. gut-wrenching surprising begs-to-discussed book! this is an amazing review.

Lisa said...

This is such a well written story but I think reading it is like tearing off a bandage. A friend read it and could not put it down--had to tear off the bandage quickly. I could only read about twenty pages at a time until well into the book--I had to peel the bandage off slowly. Such a powerful, painful book.

Post a Comment

 
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio