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364 of 385 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant And Sensitive Psychological Study- A Great Novel
"We Need To Talk About Kevin" is a disquieting, provocative, and brilliantly written novel about a mother, desperately attempting to understand why her son, 15-year-old Kevin, brutally, with premeditation, murdered seven of his fellow classmates, a cafeteria worker and his English teacher in a Columbine-style school massacre. There have been nationwide discussions on the...
Published on November 28, 2004 by Jana L. Perskie

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137 of 155 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars compelling at times, too long, flawed characters
Kevin is one of a recent series of "Columbine" books--those that try and plumb the characters of young boys who plan high school massacres. Some are just bad (Vernon God Little), others are great (Project X). Kevin falls in the middle.

Its major strength is the compelling nature of the premise--just what is it that caused young Kevin (in prison at the time...
Published on March 17, 2005 by B. Capossere


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364 of 385 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant And Sensitive Psychological Study- A Great Novel, November 28, 2004
"We Need To Talk About Kevin" is a disquieting, provocative, and brilliantly written novel about a mother, desperately attempting to understand why her son, 15-year-old Kevin, brutally, with premeditation, murdered seven of his fellow classmates, a cafeteria worker and his English teacher in a Columbine-style school massacre. There have been nationwide discussions on the cause of events like these - especially during the 1990s when it seemed like school shootings ran rampant throughout the US. In Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, Littleton, seemingly normal kids, kids who had almost everything a child could want, became terribly derailed. Some argue that the proliferation of and easy access to guns is the cause; others that the excess of violence in movies, TV programs and video games induce violent behavior in children and adolescents. The one question almost everyone seems to have in common is, "What were these murderous kids' parents like?" "Didn't they recognize symptoms of violence in their own children?"

Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin's bereft mother, narrates this novel through a series of compelling letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. She examines her son's life, from conception to his terrible act of violence, trying to understand the why of it. What becomes clear early on is that Eva tortures herself with blame. She is guilt-ridden that her shortcomings as a parent might have caused Kevin's evil act, his violent behavior, his very nature. She must have failed, she must have been deficient as a mother, for her boy to commit such a chilling crime. She also considers that neither nature nor nurture are solely responsible for shaping a child's character. Her honest, introspective correspondence to her beloved husband causes the reader to consider that some children just might be born bad. How and when are psychopaths created? The reader is pulled back and forth between empathy and blame, anger and grief, and perhaps, ultimately to forgiveness.

Through Eva's perspective we watch a story unfold. A happy, almost idyllic marriage to Franklin; a brilliant career in a business which she, herself, created; her ambivalent feelings when she became pregnant, an event which interfered with her career; the indifference she felt when she held her son for the first time; Kevin's difficult infancy - he refused his mother's milk and didn't like to be held by her; his total manipulation of his father, who believed Kevin could do no wrong, putting a permanent strain on the marriage; Kevin's lack of empathy and cruel streak, which he blatantly flaunted in front of his mother and hid from his Dad; and Eva's fear that her dislike for her son, which she went overboard to conceal, would damage him - further escalating his already violent nature.

"We Need To Talk About Kevin" examines how a heinous event can impact a town, a marriage, a family and an individual. It also causes the reader to reflect on the concept of unconditional love. Lionel Shriver's clear, crisply crafted prose builds tension throughout her novel, ultimately leading to a stunning conclusion. Her narrative is almost perfectly paced. This is an extraordinary psychological study that gripped me, riveted me, from the first page to the last. And the author ably portrays the complexity and the horror of the act and the consequences. I was seriously left breathless and horribly saddened after finishing the book. This is most definitely not an "up" novel or a light read. However, it may be my favorite book of 2004 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I have purchased 2 more of Ms. Shriver's novels as a result of reading this one.

JANA
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98 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gets into your head, April 25, 2006
This book had my rapt attention for a weekend. I could not stop reading. While seeming a bit pretentious at first, the prose is consistent, sometimes beautiful, and definitely a part of the person we come to know as Eva Katchadourian. Once I became used to her style, it did not bother me; I understood it was Eva, not Lionel Shriver.

The characterization in this novel is excellent, particularly that of Eva. She is possibly the most complete character I've ever read. I was annoyed at her at times, and even bewildered at her reactions to certain situations. However, I always found Eva to be a sympathetic character. She makes many mistakes (and so did Franklin, her husband...he sometimes exhasperated me so much I wanted to throw the book!), which she admits to. Eva villifies Kevin when he is just an infant, which forms an ever-growing wedge between herself and Franklin. At the same time, it seems that she did what most normal, flawed people would do in her situation. Her letters let us know how much she loves Franklin still, despite the way he seemed to turn against her sometimes due to their disagreements about Kevin (Franklin never really accepts that Kevin could be the sociopath Eva suspects him to be).

Eva's story is disturbing, harrowing, and gripping. It is hard to forget...it does not just go away when you put the book down. This book affected me in a way that no book has before. It made me question whether I ever want to have a child. It gave me a nightmare. It even made me feel trepidatious about going back to the schools (I am a substitute teacher). It even, as another reviewer put it, "left a dent in my heart." I am glad to have experienced such a well-written, moving story, but at the same time, this story left me with a sense of sadness, melancholy, and anxiety that I suspect will have a grip on me for a few days. Do not pick this up for light reading. If you want to become absorbed in a story that is important, timely, provocative, and emotionally gripping, please give this book a chance.
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184 of 204 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrifying and brilliant, April 16, 2003
This is one of the most chilling and compulsively readable books I�ve opened in a long time. As you read Eva Khatchadourian�s letters to her estranged husband you think �this is what it must be like� for parents whose child has just murdered classmates and a popular teacher.
As Eva reveals in her letters, she knew something was wrong with Kevin from the moment of his birth when he turned away from her breast snarling and screaming. The anger does not wane, even though outwardly he was a passive, disinterested child. She blames her own mixed feelings toward him, but her beloved husband Franklin fiercely defends the boy whenever she asks why babysitters never come back for a second time and other families go great lengths to keep Kevin away from their own children. And Eva doesn�t like him. No matter how hard she tries--and she does try very hard, moving to the suburbs, staying home, none of which she wants to do�she does not like her son.
Since you know from the beginning that Kevin is in juvenile prison for killing his classmates, you might think that the suspense in the story will come from finding out how he planned his spree and carried it out. You would be very, very mistaken. Very late in �We Need to Talk About Kevin� Lionel Shriver introduces a twist that is completely unexpected and totally shocking. These are words too frequently used in describing thrillers which rarely deliver the unexpected or the shocking. Believe me, in this book, those words do not begin to describe the wallop Shriver packs in the last quarter of the novel.
I was unfamiliar with Lionel Shriver, and will (after a recovery period) look for her other novels. She digs fearlessly into the back of her characters� minds and the bottoms of their hearts. Read this book.
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137 of 155 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars compelling at times, too long, flawed characters, March 17, 2005
Kevin is one of a recent series of "Columbine" books--those that try and plumb the characters of young boys who plan high school massacres. Some are just bad (Vernon God Little), others are great (Project X). Kevin falls in the middle.

Its major strength is the compelling nature of the premise--just what is it that caused young Kevin (in prison at the time of the novel's present) to kill several of his classmates and some school staff? It's the sort of question we all know there is no real answer for, and yet we feel the need to ask it anyway. Both the question and the need to ask it are examined through the course of the narration--structured as a series of letters from Eva, Kevin's mother, to her estranged husband and Kevin's father, Franklin.

While the structure allows for a lot of introspection and detail, it also feels a bit gimmicky in places. On the one hand, it's seems self-evidently clumsy when she spends so much time telling Franklin things he already knows, having lived through those same scenes. On the other hand, that self-evident clumsiness eventually too obviously hints at what is supposed to be, as Publisher Weekly puts it, "a huge and crushing shock." Without giving much away, I'll say it didn't seem all that shocking by the time it happened and somewhat worsened the contrived feel of the structure.

The other negative aspect of Shriver's choice of structure is that it locks us into a single voice, that of the mother, and over the book's 300+ pages, that voice starts to wear on the reader. Actually, it began to wear on this reader pretty early and Eva's voice was one of the major stumbling blocks to continuing the book. She is not a likable character through much of it and though I give Shriver credit for taking such a risk, Eva is also at times not a particularly interesting person which makes reading her for pages and pages tough to do at times. Worse than uninteresting or unlikable, she can be downright annoying (whiny, self-interested, self-deluded, passive, unbelievable) which makes it even harder to follow her for so long.

Character in general is a flaw in the book. While Eva is tough to swallow at times, there are enough times of sharp insight (into people or society in general), of incisive humor, of complexity (a woman truly torn over motherhood) that one can sort of ride those moments over the rougher sections. The other characters, unfortunately, almost never offer such redeeming moments. The father, Franklin, is mostly a dolt, almost a caricature of one, and is simply too hard to believe. There is denial, there is delusion, there is a reader's suspension of disbelief, and there is "I just don't buy a real person would be this dumb this often". Franklin falls into the last category. The sister, Celia, is far too shallow, far too docile, too clearly Kevin's opposite, and therefore comes across as more plot contrivance than character. And what happens with her ratchets up the suspension of disbelief to the stretching point and then beyond. Other characters are barely felt, though even some of these are hard to believe (especially in a plot involving a school teacher and district board).

The plot, as mentioned above, does have some major flaws of believability, especially as Kevin ages and his behavior becomes more serious. The book's strengths I think lie more in the pre-Kevin descriptions of Eva's honest ambivalence over motherhood and in Kevin's early, pre-vocal years. After that his precociousness becomes more difficult to believe, as does his parents' passive response to his behavior and language. His father is portrayed as more dumb and deluded and other adults as more clueless. And there's simply too much plot. One of the reasons Project X is so good is that Shepard knew to keep it tight. There is at times in Kevin agonizingly unnecessary detail. And so much time detailing Kevin's behavior only makes it all the more unbelievable that nobody does anything about it.

As mentioned before, the big "surprise" at the end wasn't really all that surprising. The murders itself, when finally shown, are somewhat anti-climatic, partly because it's so hard to believe Kevin's set-up actually worked and partly because not only have we spent almost 400 pages aimed at them and being exposed to lots of smaller but similarly evil acts from Kevin, but also because we've also been given in some detail many of the well-publicized actual killings such as Columbine etc. But if the big shocker and the murder scene aren't all that successful, the ending is. One just wishes it would have come sooner and cleaner. There's are some real gems in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but they would shine a lot more clearly and powerfully if the book had been cut by at least a third and if a few of the side characters had been more fully dimensional. It's an interesting read, at times a compelling one, but also a slow and eventually disappointing one. It's much, much better than Vernon God Little, nowhere near as spot-on or compelling as Project X. Slightly recommended for its good parts and its close, with forewarning that it has a lot of flaws, any one of which might make you put the book down well before the end.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing, painful to read, and well worth it, August 3, 2007
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I was shocked to read the negative reviews- I am an avid reader and I absolutely loved this book. It is difficult to read, but it reflected the discomfort that Eva, the mother was experiencing.

As a "later in life mom" who had a thriving career, I related to her angst, selfishness and frustration with the changes in her marriage. I handled things differently, but it was easy to see how the road could have turned in a different direction.

I have been so extremely judgmental regarding school shootings- obviously, it must be the parents' faults, right? After reading this book, I can say that I don't know. Are some children so disturbed that they can't be helped? We acknowledge that adults can be disturbed or damaged, but yet have the illusion, as does the father in this novel, that children are inherently innocent.

I found the mother to be honestly confused, the father to be hopeful and blinded by love. I finished this book unable to answer the question why something like this happens, who was to blame, how Kevin felt about his mother-- it felt very genuine- no nice tidy bow that answers something so enormous.

It took a few days to shake the "ick" after reading this. It was a good ick- it made me think and look at something from an entirely different view. It's why I read.
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86 of 104 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars God save these characters from their sadistic author, November 27, 2005
By 
G M (Australia) - See all my reviews
Let me state from the outset of this two-star review that this book was easily one of the most well-written, gripping books I have encountered in years. There is hardly a dull sentence therein, and few books have held my attention so well. I tend to read slowly and thoughtfully, so it's unusual for me to finish a 400-page book within a work-week: this one I simply couldn't get away from. So why two stars?

For a start, it's a genuinely nasty and upsetting book which I still find myself profoundly dispirited by even now (just hours after finishing it). There are plenty of novels that have this effect on the reader, for good reasons and to good effect. If Nevil Shute's "On The Beach", for instance, depressed you with the reality of nuclear war, then impelling you to do something about it was a worthy bi-product of an otherwise dispiriting read. (Dr. Helen Caldicott's lifelong campaign against nuclear arms, for example, began after reading this book.) But Shriver's book does not belong in this category. Why?

Firstly, the novel is a monument to authorial mean-spiritedness. Celia, the delightfully super-sensitive and good-natured daughter is introduced into the story as blatant a foil to the unbearable Kevin. So her fate as a receptacle for his meanness is sealed from the start. But would kevin's appalling treatment of her have told us anything about him that we did not already know? By the time Celia arrives on the scene, the reader is already wearily thinking: "Kevin's nasty: we get it." In literary terms, therefore, the author gave birth to Celia purely in order to gratuitously abuse her.

Secondly, the cynicism and exploitation. The twin topics of this book are motherhood and massacre. But strip away the Grand Guignol finale (and ancillary violence), and what do you have? An interesting kitchen-sink drama, but one that wont sell too well. But topical bloodshed, however insensitive, will sell. So the author makes that the nail upon which an otherwise responsible and interesting examination of family life is hung. Or rather, impaled.

Thirdly, lack of credibility. Kevin's entire life is a chronicle of appalling behaviour and deformity of character. Yet as far as I can recall, there is not a single punishment meted out by either parent. Furthermore, Kevin's permanently gulled father is as unbelievable to the reader as he is over-believing to his wife. Eva's infinitely renewable self-scorn also exasperates. Following poor Celia's injury (an upsetting and cheaply nasty trick on the author's part), the cord of credibility which the plot dangles from snaps. A mother who genuinely believed that her son did this to her daughter would drive him from the house immediately. But that would encumber the plot, of course. Instead, Kevin remains suprisingly under-questioned on his version of the event, and life in the household simply goes on. What really happened reamins curiously unpacked by all parties involved: from Celia the victim, through her mother (who never asks Kevin about it during any of her prison visits), to Kevin himself (who boasts about his every nihilistic accomplishment but never discusses this). Somehow, that's a little too convenient for the author. The ambiguity around the event is therefore entirely phoney: Shriver hasn't kidded anyone. From this point on, the rest of the story never recovers, and it all strikes a long false note.

Fourthly, the red herring of Eva's 'questionable' first-person narrative. Unimaginative study groups in the US seem to be giving Shriver's novel a latter-day rendition of that rather Procrustean reading (so fashionable in the academy to this day) of "The Turn of the Screw", where the female narrator, driven by her own demons, dooms the two young children she is supposed to take care of. After all, much has been made of the epistolary structure of the novel (whereby we can never escape Eva's viewpoint), so 'students' are obliged to ponderously ask themselves if Eva's damning depiction of Kevin can be taken at face value. But unless Eva is making up whole sentences from Kevin's own mouth and grotesquely fabricating his response to his sister's ordeal (among other things), then the common-sense conclusion seems inescapable: the slovenly, vacuous and baleful Kevin is plainly a malevolent and useless human being. So what's there to cogitate on?

Fifthly, a garbled message. It has been bruited about in the press that this book 'offers no pat answers'. (Read: authorial cop-out.) Really? In fact, the 'answer' the author does provide bookends the novel: it's there in the opening quote, and in the incredulity-inducing closing lines, whose sheer nerve I found myself gasping at. If this is the 'moral' of a novel this mean, then it is a very twisted one indeed, all the more so so for being clumsily grafted onto a story whose villain clearly invalidates it.

So: two stars for genuinely superb prose. For everything else (the garbled theme, no responsibility to the reader, crass sensationalism used as bait for deeper issues, plot holes, the denouement): zero merit. For a truly interesting meditation on family tragedy, try judith Guest's "Ordinary People". That novel at least exhibits some responsibilty. And decency.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Debate for Nature vs. Nurture, February 9, 2005
By 
Eric K. (Charlotte, NC USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
I picked up "We Need to Talk About Kevin" because of the subject matter. Not because it was about a killing spree at a high school, but because it was told from the viewpoint of the mother of the boy who killed his classmates and a teacher. It puts a twist on the "common" Columbine-like story.

The novel begins after the melee, as the mother, Eva, traces the history of her son Kevin back through his days as an infant, through all his apathy and wicked stunts growing up. She tells Kevin's story in long letters written every other week or so to her estranged husband. At first, this seemed like the actions of a crazy woman trying to re-establish her marriage. But who on Earth would ever want to reconcile with a nagging, pretentious woman who uses long diatribes with $10 words to fault you throughout your marriage?

Not until halfway through the novel was my interest fully grabbed and I didn't tire of reading another whiny letter from Eva. Up until that point, Eva comes off as a pompous woman with whom I really couldn't relate...and really didn't want to. You later realize, though, that this perspective is probably the way Kevin viewed her and why he held such resentment for his mother.

The story itself is a good example of the old Nature vs. Nurture debate. Are people inherently born evil? Or is it based on the way they're raised? Although this novel doesn't answer the question, it gives credence to both arguments and can make for an interesting discussion.

The ending of the novel is very dramatic and offers an interesting manipulation in events, which I appreciated. At that point, I was absorbed into the characters' lives and actually wanted more. I felt like a part of their "dysfunctional" family. The characters felt real, with the exception of Franklin, Kevin's father, who resembled the "golly gee" Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch (the movie version, not the TV one). It's hard to believe that Eva would ever marry such a naïve man. After finishing the novel, my only disappointment (and boredom) with the actual writing was that the author used an overload of detail to tell what turns out to be an excellent story. (My Creative Writing teacher would have scratched red lines through numerous sentences and paragraphs, as they seemed extraneous). Less is more!

If I learned anything from reading this book, it can be summed up in this one sentence: "You can call it innocence or you can call it gullibility, but [she] made the most common mistake of the good-hearted: she assumed that everyone else was just like her." On that note...don't watch your back, watch what's in front of you.
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37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Born Bad?, May 9, 2003
By A Customer
Shriver's brilliant novel explores the depth of a couple's journey into parenthood through letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her husband. Such a limited form could prove tiresome in lesser hands, but Shriver excells by giving life to Eva in uncompromisingly full dimension, revealing her faults and virtues in full measure.
While the themes of reluctant motherhood and high school mass murder and their possible relationship are central to the plot and handled masterfully, the author has a rare gift of understanding of the inner self that literally puts the reader inside Eva's mind.
This level of insight extends to illuminate the dark side in the person of Eva's son Kevin while at the same time offering no easy explanation of what may have contributed decisively to the creation of his utterly evil persona.
There are many layers in Shriver's writing and each sentence is packed tightly with content and resonant truth. So compelling are the moment to moment revelations that one is temporarily suspended from the story. But when things really heat up in the last third of the book it becomes impossible to put it down.
One of the finest writers I've come across.
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77 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The new children's hour, January 24, 2007
By 
Jennifer M (DeKalb, IL USA) - See all my reviews
Between the dark and the daylight,

When night is beginning to lower,

Comes a pause in the day's occupations,

That is known as the children's hour.

A whisper and then a silence,

Yet I know by their merry eyes

They are plotting and planning together

To take me by surprise.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Children's Hour"

School shooters were the menace of the late `90s, holding adults in their sweaty little grip for nearly a decade. In 1996, a teacher and two students were killed in Moses Lake, Washington. In 1997, a thirteen-year-old student shot a classmate over $40. That same year, Evan Ramsey killed a student and the principal of his school in Bethel, Alaska; Luke Woodham killed three classmates, wounded seven, and stabbed his mother to death in Pearl, Mississippi; and 14-year-old Michael Carneal shot up a Paducah, Kentucky school prayer group, killing three.

In 1998, the juvenile shooters became more brazen. That spring, a 13-year-old partnered with an 11-year-old in Jonesboro, Arkansas to kill five and wound ten. A month later, Andrew Wurst killed a teacher in Edinboro, Pennsylvania and, in Springfield, Oregon, Kip Kinkel upped the ante by murdering his parents as well. The epidemic seemed to culminate in 1999, when 12 were killed and 24 injured at Columbine High School in suburban Denver.

The counter-epidemic was no less predictable and no less morosely enthralling as the country scrambled frantically to understand why. In the wake of the Columbine murders, the victims' families filed lawsuits against the police, the school district, AOL Time Warner, Palm Pictures, Sony Entertainment, and the parents of the perpetrators.

Blame for the murders was widely scattered and carelessly aimed. Video games, movies, rock music, godlessness, gun control, and working mothers were all discarded before cliques and adolescent bullying were uneasily adopted to explain this spate of children spinning violently out of control.

In 2003 (still two years before 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise would kill seven people in Red Lake, Minnesota), Lionel Shriver tackled the question fictitiously in We Need to Talk About Kevin (Perseus Books). In a series of letters to her husband, Eva Khatchadourian sorts through her son's childhood and her own reluctance about motherhood in an effort to understand what drove Kevin to murder nine of his classmates on the eve of his 16th birthday.

Granted, the epistolary artifice is forced and Shriver (who proudly describes herself as a pedant) is a verbal show-off, telling the story in languorous, unnecessarily complex sentences. But Kevin is still a brilliant tragicomic satire of child-centered families in the `90s, raising the possibility that we're allowing these little beasts to run wild in the name of building their "self-esteem."

Eva is a casualty of child-centeredness. She reluctantly scales back her career in publishing travel guides to have a child she isn't sure she wants and, from birth, she ascribes malicious intent and intractable motives to Kevin's behavior. She's impatient, sharp-tongued, and has little use for the mawkishly sentimental notions of ideal maternity.

Shriver obviously expects us to ask whether Kevin's problems are all his mother's fault and we can never quite ascertain Eva's credibility. She admits she was a terrible mother, but even this conclusion is suspect as she inflates the mother-son relationship to unreasonable proportions (which she acknowledges as a form of vanity).

But it's hard to avoid the possibility that child-centeredness has as much to do with Kevin's murderous tendencies as Eva's chilly reception of motherhood. At its core is the belief that children, due to an assumed psychological fragility, are utterly shaped by their parents and therefore "good parenting" means the mother must subsume her entire identity in her children. What's more, she must enjoy every moment of this for, if she does not, the child will sense her ambivalence and be warped by it.

One earmark of child-centeredness is over-indulgence and lack of discipline. If children do something bad, it's assumed to be the fault of the parents (primarily the mother and usually because she is, in some way, selfishly indulging herself).

Another related earmark is a preoccupation with the child's psyche and self-image. The theory goes that, because children are entirely shaped by their parents, they are assumed to be a tabula rasa and intrinsically good. Anything the mother does (particularly any selfish desires or less-than-enthusiastic attitudes) can mar this perfect slate, resulting in bad behavior and mental illness.

There's an historical myopia to these steep and immutable maternal expectations. They fail to acknowledge that parenting and childhood are culturally-defined and that beliefs about child-rearing change drastically across time and place. To even come close to meeting child-centered expectations requires a certain amount of wealth and leisure. Before modern conveniences made this possible, no parent would have had the time or disposable wealth to focus this much energy on parenting as a task in itself -- there was too much farming, weaving, hunting, ranching, and domestic labor to be done. Yet somehow society managed to progress anyhow.

Nonetheless, most readers will cheerfully collaborate in blaming Eva and few blame Kevin's father, Franklin, who sees only good in his son and undermines any attempt to discipline him, placing a wedge of marital discord between the parents. Kevin is coddled and over-indulged by a father who becomes so invested in the kind of son he wants that he fails to see the son he actually has. Kevin can get away with anything and has no respect for Franklin from the beginning.

That readers sympathize so readily with Franklin underscores the expectation that mothers will give everything while fathers will get a free pass no matter how inept or uninvolved they may be. Can a failure to discipline truly be considered superior parenting to a failure to indulge? Even if we accept that Kevin was born a tabula rasa and would have been ok if he'd been born to different parents, wouldn't a failure to see his flaws have been at least as influential as Eva's reluctance to have him in the first place?

There is arguably the strongest textual evidence that Kevin has an organic mental illness and has been a sociopath from birth. And, on this score, Shriver has obviously done her homework. He presents a lot of the vague sort of symptoms that correlate with sociopathy, but which can't be taken as conclusive proof of it: constant crying in infancy, an unusually large head and lack of muscle tone (as a child, pediatricians describe Kevin as "floppy"), an unusual acceptance of boredom, a tendency to "zone out" (eyes glazed over and mouth hanging open), extreme difficulty with toilet training, and an alarming lack of empathy.

It's hard to read this book and not give in to the temptation to settle on one or two particular answers. But part of the tragedy of the Kevins of the world is that they have no meaning. There's no way to make them safe and pocket-sized and controllable without being, to some degree, dishonest about them.

What drove Kevin off the deep end may be the most obvious question posed by the novel, but it's also the most banal, ultimately resolved only through a leap of blind reader hubris. We close the book with no more certainty about what causes school shootings than when we picked it up - and author interviews suggest this was probably the point. We grapple for The Answer out of the same vanity exhibited by Eva - the need of the privileged to find order in the universe and use that order to ward off disaster. If there is no definitive answer, then any parent is capable of producing a monster.

Besides, there are much more interesting questions posed by Shriver's keen insights into American culture and our nihilistic little hearts.

Kevin sees a kindred spirit in his mother because Eva is able to peek into the same black void of meaninglessness that makes Kevin's life so intolerable, but which everyone else around them ignores. Kevin looks to Eva to guide him through this Nietzschean Hell that he holds in such contempt. And herein lies Eva's failure - much greater than not being nice and feminine and maternal: she was never able to give Kevin's life meaning for him.

If we accept at face value that Eva's problem is a failure to be instinctively maternal, we risk ignoring her much greater character flaws that would have been no less flaws had she never decided to reproduce. If anyone around Kevin could have convinced him that life has meaning, it would probably have been Eva. She's the only one who would have given him an answer that wasn't coated in dishonesty and foolishness. Instead, she tells him that the cure to existential boredom is to "bring a book."

Eva and Franklin wanted a child in order to answer what they called the "Big Question" - the purpose of human existence - which Eva later realizes may be the most selfish part of their reasoning. They can't give Kevin's life any meaning because they had kids as a way to give their own lives meaning.

It's a question that's never before been raised in the whole course of human history. Children used to be essential because they were needed for labor. Now that the First World no longer needs children economically, it's become a viable question: Do I want children and, if so, why?

It's a question that's needled American readers and given Lionel Shriver the reputation of an ice queen. Shriver (who changed her name from "Margaret Ann" to "Lionel" at age 15) is an American expatriate living in London whose mixed feelings about the United States may shine through in Eva even more than her contempt for the soppiness and boredom of motherhood. And she indulges these fierce American insights even with her characters.

Franklin, a hot dog-snarfing Republican patriot, is both the stereotypical American and the way we want to see ourselves. He embodies our national story and the way we cling, in the face of all evidence, to the insistence that the whole rest of the world sees us the same way we see ourselves -- reality need not apply. In many ways, Franklin is a better person than anyone else in the novel, but his complete refusal to acknowledge reality is his undoing.

Eva, the daughter of Armenian immigrants, is also a sort of American cliche, but one that the Franklins like to minimize. She's the gadfly. She's the stereotypical East Coast liberal who idealizes Europe and Canada and rolls her eyes at all those ignorant rubes she's stuck sharing a country with. She believes she's smarter than they are and, though she's right, she's not a better person for it. Her honesty is unacceptable to the Franklins because it pierces the national story of American superiority and, ironically, it's her own honesty that makes her miserable. It enables her to not only see everything that unfolds for what it is, but to realize her own hand in making it that way. At least Franklin's ignorance is bliss.

Kevin is the dark side of American culture that nobody wants to talk about. Our meaninglessness. Our boredom. Our dissatisfaction with consumerism. We have everything, so what's left to take pleasure in except hedonistic sadism and destruction? Kevin is really the logical outcome of combining the Franklins and the Evas.

Even little Celia -- Kevin's small, timid, and self-effacing sister -- has a symbolic role to play. She's our other unmentionable dark side. Our fear and our sense of isolation. She's the reality that, for all America's international bravado, we're really so petrified of The Terrorists that we're quivering under the bed, peeing ourselves. And it's too bad she's unmentionable, because she's also our un-self-conscious innocence, our artless naivete, our incorruptible sweetness.

For all Shriver's evident frustrations with child-centeredness ("the same folks who are inclined to sue builders who did not perfectly protect them from the depredations of an earthquake [are] the first to claim that their son failed his math test because of attention deficit disorder and not because he spent the night before at a video arcade"), with therapy culture ("a complaint common enough to have a name...dangles options like Internet chat rooms and community support groups for rhapsodic communal bellyaching"), with cheap forgiveness ("conspicuous clemency has become the religious version of driving a flashy car"), or with exceptionalism ("Americans are...self-righteous and superior about their precious democracy, and condescending toward other nationalities because they think they've got it right - never mind that half the adult population doesn't vote...Worst of all, they have no idea that the rest of the world can't stand them."), what really seems to stick in her craw is the American love of spectacle. As Christopher Hitchens (whom I'm loath to quote, but in this instance, he's right) once said, "All Americans really want, deep down, is to be special."

So, was Kevin then responding to a dysfunctional society obsessed with fame by any means necessary? For a short season, school shootings were a fad. They went from the distant, unrealistic fantasies of misfit kids to a quasi-legitimate form of adolescent self-expression. Adults fed the fad by speaking in darkly hopeful tones about how it could happen in their town too. It got a lot of attention and kids always do things that garner lots of adult attention. It didn't take kids long to figure out that shooting up their school would make them famous all over the country.

Shriver shrinks not from polemic when she has Kevin deliver the following speech to the TV cameras: "You wake up and you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job or your little school, but you're not going to hear about that on the 6:00 news, since guess what. Nothing is really happening...You watch TV all night or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you've been watching...What are they watching?...People like me...you're listening to what I say because I have something you don't: I got plot." [Italics original]

Perhaps it's poor form for an author to shame her readers in this way, but it's certainly effective. We know going into it that Kevin shoots up his school and I was, true to form, gobbling the book up in anticipation of a gory climax. Just the same way millions of people sat glued to the television on the day of the Columbine murders.

Our insatiable appetite for disaster porn may serve the higher purpose of giving us someone to loathe. Andrea Yates was once everyone's favorite mother to hate. We needed her so we could say, "Hey, I may not be perfect, but at least I'd never drown my five children in the bathtub." Thereby drawing a clear, reassuring line between good mothers and bad mothers. Yates externalized what is perhaps a common reluctance about having kids and a fear of snapping at some point and hurting them. Maybe so many people wanted to kill Andrea Yates in order to kill the part of themselves that feared they could identify with her.

Shriver herself provokes nearly as strong a reaction as Eva, apparently for the unfeminine crime of saying and doing whatever she pleases. Shriver's cheerful admission that she finds children messy, loud, tiresome, and "brutally dull" has earned her a reputation as "anti-child," implying that any woman who doesn't enjoy children is abnormal and suspicious. She openly disdains American tackiness and spends as much time overseas as possible. When she won the Orange Prize for Kevin in 2005, she was criticized for not displaying the proper humility. The BBC ran a photo of her jubilantly kissing her award and she admitted that she not only very much wanted to win, but believed that she deserved to win.

It's this desire for iconoclasm that proves Eva - and her creator - to be ironically and ineluctably, even lovably, as American as apple pie.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nature vs. Nuture: Compelling on both sides, April 28, 2008
Even after reading this novel twice I am unsure as to who is in the right or wrong: Kevin or Eva.

As someone who has no interest in having children, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Eva. How does one raise a child when that elusive mothering gene refuses to kick in? But perhaps the problem isn't Eva, who does show deep maternal love towards her daughter, but instead is Kevin. Are some children born unlovable?

The plot is important, of course, but to dwell too long on the particulars robs the reader of the delightful unfolding of complexity that elicts both intellectual and emotional responses. Let me instead comment on the writing.

This book is not for those who would rather read Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steel. This book expects its readers to know language, revel in language. Lionel does not write "down" to the readers; on the contrary, she expects that a reader is versed in language and grammar and expects a book to be not only entertaining but well written. What a delight that is!

The best part of this mastery of language comes the recognition that perhaps it's not the author's own use of language but Eva's instead - a highly intelligent, literary, capable woman who refuses to be obsequious to slavish convention. Her voice propels the book and her voice is one of superiority marred by the realization that her life is overshadowed by her son, a son she was reluctant to create in the first place, yet now commands her life in all respects.

I cannot recommend this book more - I think it offers not only a great story, but a wonderful trip through the structure of language, to me its greatest selling point.
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We Need to Talk About Kevin tie-in: A Novel (P.S.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin tie-in: A Novel (P.S.) by Lionel Shriver (Paperback - December 27, 2011)
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