Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin

If you bear a child that you simply cannot relate to, would you ever admit it? If said child is unlovable, do you confess to anyone about it? In this generation of Facebook and Instant Gratification, all relationships are always crisply perfect. Everything is shiny, happy, people! In reality, though, even a mother-child relationship does not come with a guarantee of ease. And if you wait for several years, debating whether or not you need to procreate and when you finally open yourself up to the idea of having a child and loving it, and creating a family — what if that child, and the experience of motherhood, turns out to be nothing like you’d imagined?

That’s what happens to Eva Khatchadourian. A successful businesswoman in her own right, and married to a man she absolutely loves, Eva and her husband Franklin have nothing missing in their lives. But a freak fear that after Franklin, Eva would have nothing left, drives her to decide to have a child. But Kevin, whom she earnestly gives her own last name, turns out nothing like she hopes. From the start and for good reason, Eva loathes her son and Kevin only reciprocates those feelings. Starting with his choice to not suckle at her breast, begins Eva’s sixteen year long struggle to love and/or accept her own flesh and blood. Eva’s decision to get into the mind of her son begins in the aftermath of his well-planned execution of some of his schoolmates and one English teacher.

The novel is written in the epistolary form, where Eva writes to her estranged husband, Franklin reminiscing, first, about their days as child-free husband and wife, and later with the arrival of Kevin, their strained and difficult family life. Through her letters, Eva attempts to understand, perhaps, what went wrong. Did she make mistakes in her nurture of Kevin, or was being a murderer his nature?

Lionel Shriver creates, with her brilliant writing, characters that are at once unbelievable, and yet very relatable in their drawbacks. What is irksome, though, is that Shriver’s prose is overly ornate and oftentimes cumbersome. I found the first 100 pages or so really gnarly and was ready to give up on the book (I am impatient!). But, I am glad I persisted. Because it paid off. Once in the middle of the book, I wasn’t ready to put it down. Then, I wondered, if Shriver’s elaborate prose wasn’t more of a reflection of  Eva, who is rather full of herself? Maybe, it was. And when I chose to read the book as written by Eva, it started to make sense. As a narrator, Eva is unreliable, and yet, we cannot help but believe her when she describes Kevin’s one horrendous act after another. She is our only perspective on the issue and we sympathize with her, even if a little reluctantly.

While the book does a meticulous job of describing how a mother of a murderous son might feel, there are several instances that leave you feeling exasperated. Why is Franklin such a gullible man? How can he trust his son over his wife at every instance of trouble? How can Eva let that be between her husband and her, and how is she not tired of this dysfunctional family? Why is she writing to her husband, in detail, everything that has happened? Shriver does answer many of these questions, but the reader needs to be patient.

In Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, the title character accidentally overhears her mother say “I love Sula, I just don’t like her.” Sula only reacts to that with a sting in her eyes, but she leads a broken life afterwards. Kevin, unlike Sula, doesn’t just hurt his loved ones, he kills innocent people and makes life a living hell for his mother. But like Sula, Kevin’s brokenness seems to stem from his broken relationship with his mother. And the flaw within that relationship, one that has been considered the purest and most wondrous of all relationships, is the flaw that makes this book worth reading.

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