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We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel Paperback – July 3, 2006
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“Ms. Shriver takes a calculated risk . . . but the gamble pays off as she strikes a tone of compelling intimacy.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Furiously imagined.” (Seattle Times)
“An underground feminist hit.” (New York Observer)
“A slow, magnetic descent into hell that is as fascinating as it is disturbing.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
“Shriver handles this material, with its potential for cheap sentiment and soap opera plot, with rare skill and sense.” (Newark Star Ledger)
“Powerful [and] harrowing.” (Entertainment Weekly)
“Impossible to put down.” (Boston Globe)
From the Back Cover
The gripping international bestseller about motherhood gone awry
Eva never really wanted to be a mother—and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.
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This is one of the few times I was glad I had watched the movie before I read the book. I was prepared for the horrors to come. I knew the mother, Eva, was not particularly likable, and did not want to have children. The only reason she chose to do so is that her husband, Franklin, wanted a child so badly, and she loved her husband desperately and wanted to please him. Eva was capable of love; the attachment disorder was not her fault. In the letters she addressed to her husband, she described numerous scenes where she searched for Franklin frantically at the airport after returning from her trips abroad because she missed him so badly. And she loved her second child, Celia, even though she clearly saw what she perceived as Celia’s character flaws, something many parents have difficulty doing.
So as to the question of nature versus nurture, I think we were given ample clues that the primary cause of Kevin’s problems was nature, although his nature made it extremely difficult for his mother to nurture him in any meaningful way. In answer to questions raised by other reviewers – yes, some children are born with brain defects that prevent them from experiencing normal human emotions. Read up on recent brain research. It will open your eyes.
Another aspect of the situation which was quite frustrating is Franklin’s sheer pig-headedness in refusing to see what Kevin truly is. As the author presents Kevin’s behavior, he has some aspects of sociopathy, which includes the ability to present a charming and attractive face to those he wishes to deceive. Franklin saw what he wants to see, and after years of defending Kevin, Franklin was entrenched in this world view. To backtrack would be to admit that he had been wrong since the beginning, a difficult thing for anyone to do. But to refuse to face facts after Celia’s injury – well, I can’t help wondering what Franklin was thinking about as he lay on the lawn bleeding out after Kevin shot him in the neck with an arrow.
I can understand Eva on an intellectual level, I cannot empathize with her. My husband and I both wanted a child. I had a good idea of what was involved with raising a child. I was eleven years old when my younger brother was born, so I ended up doing a lot of the child care because my mother worked long hours and my father was disabled. Eva was unprepared for the emotional and physical stress involved in caring for a child, but Kevin’s nature made her job a hundred – a thousand! – times harder than for most mothers. My conclusion quite early in the book, especially since I had seen the movie, was that the problem was at least 90-95% Kevin’s, 5-10% Eva’s. She was not the most likable person in the world, but she was capable of love when the person she loved was able to love her back. Whatever Kevin felt for his mother - and he did have feelings toward her - it wasn't love.
Since my own experience as a mother has been the complete opposite of Eva’s, I particularly did not understand the ending. She finally found a way to love her son? She planned for him to live with her after he got out of Sing Sing, whatever “walk[s] out the other side”? I have cut relatives out of my life for far less than what Kevin did: Incest. Pedophilia. Even disrespectful and hurtful behavior toward me. Of course, none of these acts involved my son, but I can say without a doubt that if I had put up with fifteen years of the kind of behavior Eva put up with from Kevin, and then he did what he did, I would get him the best legal representation I could afford but he would never, ever hear from me or see me again. Apparently Eva’s feelings of guilt and responsibility for Kevin’s behavior drove her to the masochistic extreme of regular visits to Kevin in prison, and planning to once again take responsibility for him when he was released. Better her than me.
As for the writing – I found particularly the first one-third to one-half of the book very slow going. Overly complex and turgid prose slowed me down considerably. I am not impressed when an author goes out of her way to sound “literary”. In particular, in a story told in epistolary fashion, words should flow naturally, like conversation. And as I got further into the book, it did flow a little better – or maybe I just got used to her style. In the last half of the book, the exposition was broken up with dialogue more frequently, which helped.
I rarely give books four stars. That means “would read again.” I have seen the movie twice. It is conceivable that at some future date I will read the book again. The copy I am reading now is from the library. I plan to buy a copy for my collection, so that I will have it when and if I decide to read it again.
1. The writing style. When I first started reading, I found it pretentious and overdone, but actually it was deep within the character's voice. The whole book is narrated in letter format by Eva, the MC, and this is her voice. Find it aloof? That's because it is intentionally that way. Even her own husband, Franklin, asks her to restate something in plainer terms, which proves the point that the narration is the character's true voice. I got used to the language quickly and felt engrossed in the character herself. The style of writing deepens the reader's connection with Eva, even if you don't find her sympathetic or likable.
2. Taboo issues. Several times the author hits on issues in relationships and especially in motherhood that people just don't talk about. Feeling limited by pregnancy, feeling jealous of the attention the baby gets from the husband, feeling neutral or negative about the child overall. These are all things we don't talk about, that don't seem...acceptable. In an interview at the end of the audiobook version, Lionel Shriver speaks specifically about this. I highly recommend the audiobook version if for no other reason than to hear the fascinating interview. (The audiobook is fantastic anyway.)
3. Feeling Eva's feelings. The way the book is written really gets the reader involved in Eva's life, her innermost thoughts and feelings, and that serves to help us genuinely feel what she's feeling. I felt so frustrated with Franklin sometimes that it felt like I was frustrated with someone real. I found myself fighting with Franklin on Eva's behalf. I kept listing reasons why he should pay attention to what she was saying. But the brilliant part is, if you look at it from Franklin's perspective, you get it (to a degree) as well. The problems in the relationship and the character flaws allow us to feel the layers within their interactions and just how complicated they are.
4. Suspense. Shriver has a way of building suspense that I haven't experienced often. It's a little unconventional, to the point that even when I knew what was coming, I felt nervous during the buildup. This is one of those rare books where it's helpful to know some of what's coming so you can appreciate all the little hints while you read - and there are a lot of them. There is much to be appreciated in this book, and the seemingly small details are really not so small at all. In fact, most things have major significance, even when it seems like Eva is getting off track, so pay close attention.
5. The ending. I'm not going to spoil anything, but let's just say it really affected me. It took me off guard, shocked me, and I had to actually get over it. Normally I go back and read the beginning of a book after I finish it, just so I can try to pick up on little things that might have been blindly significant until you reread. I couldn't start from the beginning again right away. I needed time to recover.
There is so much more to say about this book, I can't fit it all into a review. It's 100% worth the time and then some. I highly recommend it to readers and also to writers as a good writing lesson. I learned a lot from it and have ordered the paperback version so I can study it more closely.