The Sunday Salon – We Need to Talk…

…about what this ravenous reader has been up to of late, since it obviously has not been writing *rueful grin*  Our summer days have been so glorious here in Michigan, I find myself sitting on the back porch late into the evening (much as I’m doing right now!), sipping a good Chardonnay and watching the sun sink into the sky behind the apple trees in the orchard.  The lazy, hazy days of summer have indeed been just that.

But I have been reading, as I’m always quick to tell you when I’ve been absent from the stack.  Since my last appearance on these pages, I finished Death at La Fenice (the first in Donna Leon’s fine Commisario Brunetti series of procedurals set in Venice), and then delved in to the book that preoccupied me for the entire week.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel by Lionel Shriver, is a darkly compelling look at a completely dysfunctional family relationship, one that ultimately leads to a terrifying tragedy.  In a series of heart rending letters written to her husband, Eva Kachadourian tries to come to terms with the events of the past 17 years of her son Kevin’s life, events that ultimately led to the boy to commit mass murder. 

Rarely have I read a book that affected me so much, on so many levels.  Rarely have I met characters who angered me so deeply.  Rarely have I been this frightened by the emotional disabilities of fictional people.

First, because Eva is Armenian (as am I, with a surname which bears an unsettling similarity to hers and I even have a younger cousin named “Kevin”), there’s already a chilling sense of identity between this family and myself.  And because my own son was often quite disaffected in his high school experience, disturbing memories and concerns were brought to the surface.

But there the similarities between Eva and I end, for she readily admits her aversion to motherhood in general, and to her own son in particular.  As a matter of fact, the feeling is mutual, for from the moment the two meet face to face in the delivery room, the antipathy between them is searingly obvious.

Kevin was damp, and blood creased his neck, the crooks of his limbs. I put my hands diffidently around him.  The expression on his twisted face was disgruntled.  His body was inert; I could only interpret his lassitude as a lack of enthusiasm.  Sucking is one of our few innate instincts, but with his mouth right at my enlarged brown nipple, his head lolled away in distaste.  

Minutes wore on, Kevin would yowl, rest limply, and jerk irritably from time to time; I felt the first stirrings of what, appallingly, I can only call boredom.

It’s hard to feel any sympathy for any of these characters…not Eva, who seems oddly unsuited to motherhood, not her husband Franklin, who consistently overlooks Kevin’s obviously disturbed behavior, in his blithering determination to make a happy family, and not Kevin, who Schriver doesn’t even have the grace to make a victim of school bullying.  He’s simply a devil child, “missing something,” as Eva’s mother says (albeit after the fact of the horrible outcome).  And what he’s missing is any kind of human feeling other than pure, unadulterated misogny.

The book raises all kinds of questions in the readers mind.  Are there really people this genuinely flawed from birth?  What accident of genetics combines to create characteristics like these? Or was it really Eva’s lack of love that turned him, even in the womb, into this cruel, hateful creature.

It raises questions about the American way of life, of the tendency we have to “refuse to take responsibility” for our own mistakes, and the complicity of the largesse of our lifestyles in creating people who are pathologically dissatisfied with the world around them.

And of course, one of the big questions of the century comes to the fore – can a woman serve “two masters” – her career, and her family – without doing dealy disservice to both?

Schriver throws a few curve balls into the mix – Eva’s second child, Celia, a little girl simple and eager to please, who becomes the object of all Eva’s maternal affections.   And the final revelation, which demonstrates a horror I hadn’t quite expected, although I suppose I should have seen it coming.

As disturbing a book as this was, I would read it again – I would recommend it to others.  Shriver is a marvelous writer – she gets so deeply inside Eva’s head, the reader feels as if they’re living there, consumed with guilt, dreading those visits to the juvenile detention center to confront this sullen progeny who has created such havoc in her life.

It was worth reading to the end, for in the final paragraph, Schriver gives the reader a smidgen of hope.  For one small second, we see a trace of humanity in Kevin, and a spark of love is ignited in Eva. 

Perhaps all is not lost.

Now darkness has fallen, and the only light here on my porch comes from the screen on my little computer. I think this book will need to settle in my mind for a bit, much as a heavy meal needs to settle in the digestive tract.  Any more reading for tonight will need to be light and airy, and about a blissfully happy family.

The Sunday


18 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – We Need to Talk…

  1. I started reading this about two years ago and just couldn’t get into it- I think it had more to do with all the drama going on in my own life at the time (issues with the ex and such, the kind of tear-your-hair-out-and-stomp-on-it kind of drama, thank God that’s done and over!), but it’s something I’ve wanted to read for quite a long time. I’ll put it back on my list. 🙂

    Out of curiosity, do all Armenian names end with -ian? If so, do you know the significance of that? Does it have something to do with the language, or is it something else? I find that very interesting. 🙂

  2. I bought a copy of Let’s Talk about Kevin this summer. Many people suggested that after I reviewed Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Based on your discussion here, that is the better, more heart wrenching of the two. BTW, where abouts in Michigan do you live? I grew up in Grand Rapids (I wish I could point to it on my hand right now). I’ve lived in Virginia for 12 years now, but I hope to move back there someday if the economy ever improves. I miss the Great Lakes.

  3. The questions you raise about this book remind me very much of my reaction after I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I would LOVE to read what your reaction would be to this book. Perhaps if you haven’t already read it you might consider adding it to your list of upcoming books.

  4. I had tremendous problems with ‘Kevin’ mainly because I disliked Shriver’s style and the irritation I felt got in the way. However, I’m going to have to re-read it later this year for a book group so it may be that I’ll appreciate it more a second time round. Either that or throw it through the window!

  5. Kevin is one of those books that attracts a lot of discussion. People need to talk about it … Many I’ve talked to are irritated by Eva. Some are irritated by the twist at the end, but I was too blind to figure it out in advance so it hit me pretty hard. Reading the book, and watching Kevin and the entire family hurtling towards the inevitable is so compelling, so harrowing, that sometimes I just had to set the book aside. But then I’d be drawn back in …

  6. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of those books I’ve heard soooo much about (mostly how horrific and disturbing it is), but until your review I don’t know that I realized how interesting it could be thematically. I’m really interested now. Thanks so much!

    And it’s good to see you posting. 🙂

  7. I’ve heard so much about this book, but I’m not sure I could read it. I don’t usually shy away from books due to the subject matter, but this one seems different. I have two boys (18 and 20) who are out of high school and have always been well-adjusted, but it still kind of unnerves me to read things like this.

  8. What a fascinating book! I blame it on being a psych major, but I’ve always been really interested in what makes people become “evil” or “saintly”. Genetics? Upbringing? Great review!

  9. I thought this was a fascinating and disturbing book and wrote a post on it a while back. I was really intrigued by the debate surrounding nurture and nature. I felt that Shriver came down on the nature side on the quiet because Celia was the way she was from birth. If she had come out like Kevin then you could blame genetics, but as she is his opposite, the victim to his aggressor, then there seems to be the hand of fate at work. But I also felt the book was subtly structured on black and white thinking: questions of good and bad, right and wrong, guilt and innocence were always offered as either/ors. It’s a book that lives on in the mind, though, isn’t it?

  10. Hey there! I’m originally from Michigan (southern California, now) and I remember those (brief and few) glorious summer days. Enjoy them while you can!!

    Thanks for a great review. ‘Kevin’ was a book that left me so unsettled. As dark and disturbing as it was, I felt it was extremely well written. I was sort of surprised to find out after reading it that Shriver is not a mother.

    Here’s my review from last year:

  11. I thought this book was absolutely great in the way it is able to depict that relationship between a mother and child (even though I am aware that Lionel Shriver does not have any children!) It is definitely unsettling but also very raw in its love and trying to come to terms with your own child. The writing is superb.

  12. Reading some of the bloggers’ reviews on Let’s Talk About Kevin make me have goose flesh. But it seems to be a well-written book on dysfunctional family. Wally Lamb’s latest novel is a fiction of the Colombine incident. I consider reading both.

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