Mondays on the Margins: We Need to Talk About This Goddamned Kevin Book

Warning: here be spoilers. This could be alternately titled My Big Fat Spoiler-y Review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, because I can't talk about this book without delving into the entirety of my experience with it. I think/hope enough people expressed to me either their advice that I not read it (indicating that they had) or their vehement desire never to read it themselves that everyone won't run screaming, but it won't be the first or last time I've just sat here talking to myself.

So. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Here is the picture of Lionel Shriver (from Google images) that was on the back flap of the edition I was reading:

It's an odd picture, isn't it? It's not terribly well-composed - on the book flap it's really hard to tell where her hair ends and the wrought iron begins. And that expression - would you call it sardonic? I think I would. I tend to flip to the back and gaze at the author photos every few pages while I'm reading, and I became irretrievably convinced that this was the picture of someone who delighted in Fucking With Me.

So. The book. Why did I decide to read the book, and now, in the bleak midwinter, in the winter of my seasonally affective discontent, of all times? Hell if I know. I thought I might see the movie at some point, and someone advised me to read the book first. And I swore up and down when Room came out that I'd never read it (just like I said I'd never have a blog), and Room was excellent. So....

The movie stars Tilda Swinton, who I adore, and having her androgynous, strongly sculpted face in my mind while reading Eva Katchadourian's life was perfect. For the first half of the book or so, I was delightfully engaged and yet not at all viscerally affected. The style is so cerebral, Eva's gaze so scalpel-sharp and analytical, that I was lost in admiration for the writing and yet felt detached from any kind of emotional fallout.  Eva as a character is....I want to say sort of sympathetically unlikable; hysterically self-conscious, hyper-successful and competitive, almost cruelly observant of the foibles of others, but equally ruthless when she turns her gaze inwards.

When Kevin is born, rejecting her breast and apparently every other maternal comfort and joy she offers, I was still feeling pretty safely distanced. I got mildly exercised at the way her husband Franklin kept finding excuses for Kevin's behaviour and being monstrously dismissive of Eva's feelings, and this just gets worse and worse as Kevin gets older, but this was so completely opposite from my experience of parenting with my husband that I was able to hold it apart.

So here I am, trundling along feeling almost smug about how well I'm handling this WORK OF FICTION. Yes, Eva Katchadourian gave birth to a sociopath, very unfortunate for her. I already know Something Horrible happens, so I'm braced for that.

Each chapter is a letter she's writing to her husband Franklin. At some point it occurred to me to wonder whether Franklin was dead, rather than just separated from her. There is a fairly recent canon that births suspicions like this: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Season 6 of Dexter. I thought, since we already know the chief catastrophic event, maybe this is how she's going to zing us (because look at her, clearly she wants to zing us). I steeled myself to meet this eventuality.

Then. THEN. There's a section where Eva is talking about the fact that, despite the possible expectation that what has happened would make her hard-hearted and unfeeling, she finds herself easily moved by small acts of kindness or sentimental stories. She says, "I am amazed when I drop a glove in the street and a teenager runs two blocks to return it. I am amazed when  checkout girl flashes me a wide smile with my change, though my own face had been a mask of expedience...." and she finishes this passage with "Celia amazed me".

Celia? Who the hell is Celia? And then it struck me like an icicle through the heart: Jesus Christ, they had another kid.

And that changed everything. Because where was that other child? Up until now, I had been reading a fairly short section every night, reading slow, flipping pages tidily. Now I was in a sweaty, breathless, page-tearing frenzy to get to the end. And I was pissed off. Even if she was an unreliable narrator, Eva and I had been pretty squarely on the same page - Kevin was a harmful force in the world. Why on earth would one add another hostage to fortune into that environment?

It could have been presented in a way that would have been acceptable to me. If she'd said that she had  basically lost her husband to her son, which was true, that she was lonely and desperate and she wanted a child that would be normal and love her. But she doesn't. She presents it as a whim: "Honestly, I'd no idea what I was going to say until I said it." Her husband refuses, because he's so disgusted with her behaviour towards the child they have already. She gets pregnant on the sly. They have a normal, sweet, daughter. SHE LETS HER HUSBAND PERSUADE HER TO LET KEVIN BABYSIT. Drain cleaner gets mysteriously dribbled on the daughter's face and she is scarred and blinded in one eye.

I know. I can't know what I would be like in the same situation. You can't argue on the givens. But this had me thinking of something Sasha said the other night, which is "the thing about fiction is, it has to be believable". And the book kind of lost me here. Not completely, but after this I could not be quite as destroyed as I feared I might be by the inevitable ending, because the belief just wasn't there. She wonders why she didn't take Celia and leave, although she could have afforded it. I know, I know - she was beaten down, numbed by years of fighting and horror and being alone in her infernal knowledge. Still...

I've heard people talk about certain authors being manipulative, and it always makes me roll my eyes a little because duh - isn't every author manipulative? But there is skillful manipulation and clumsy manipulation, and what I started to think of as The Celia Factor seems every so slightly like clumsy manipulation.

Then there is the ending. After Kevin has killed nine children and a teacher and a cafeteria worker at school, and Eva has discovered her daughter and husband dead at their house, she visits Kevin regularly in prison. It's unclear precisely what her intent is - seeking answers, punishing herself, punishing him by refusing to show emotion or by mentioning other school shooters with higher body counts - but again, it all hits the proper pitch until the last visit before the end of the book, when suddenly he looks "dismayed" at the thought of being moved to an adult prison, he thanks her for assuring him that she will still visit, and he hands over Celia's glass eye which he had previously hoarded as a way of tormenting Eva on previous visits. She finishes the book by telling her dead husband that "after three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son", and describing the second bedroom that is ready for Kevin when he comes out of the adult penitentiary.

It isn't that I can't conceive of someone loving their child no matter what. And maybe he's playing her - I think either she's projecting or he's playing her, because sociopaths don't spontaneously grow emotions. So I don't know. But the ending struck a false note for me.

Still, on the whole this was fairly brilliant. I've completely ignored the possibility of an unreliable narrator, because frankly I just can't go there. Seems clear there's a fierce talent and intelligence behind that sardonic smirk. I feel lucky to have escaped relatively unscathed. And my kids are so getting a pony. Oh, and all the reviewers on Goodreads complaining about "too many big words" and Shriver "just trying to impress the reader"? Seriously? Twelve lashes for lameness.

Questions? Comments? I could really use some back-and-forthing here.


Lynn said…
I haven't read it, but several years ago my book club read The Post-Birthday World, also by her, at my suggestion. Most of the people in the club had a similar totally aggravated reaction - feeling that the characters acted irrationally, for example, and completely enraged at some of their choices. But there is no question that the writing is gorgeous, and the story so incredibly engrossing that none of us could put it down, even though it's super super long.

Overall I would say I personally adored it, it continues to stay with me and I thought it was both manipulative (in obvious ways) and used lots of big words and yet, haunting.

I've had Kevin on my bookshelf for at least three years now, I've started and stopped it several times for fear of the emotional horror. I actually read your entire review, despite spoilers, because I really want to know if I should read it or not. Jury is still out...what do you think?
Jenny said…
If you've read (or are putting off reading) The Fault in Our Stars, I'd appreciate your comments. I have my mom's copy but I keep reminding myself I Know Better, This Is Why I Gave Up Grey's Anatomy, etc.
Nicole said…
I couldn't read more than a couple of chapters in that book, and now I'm extra glad of it. Because it sounds like something I would not have benefited from. Another child? Jesus.
Sasha said…
NOOOOOOOO! I just wrote this long rambling comment and GOOGLE ATE IT. I have to get back to work, I'll try and remember what I wrote.

And I was *just* in the process of copying the text, too, because the page was taking so long to load and my surfer-senses were tingling.

Mary Lynn said…
It wasn't so much that I didn't want you to read the book at all. I just wasn't sure it was a good book to read while in the midst of the February blahs.

Anyway, I kind of felt distanced from the book most of the way through. Shriver writes well, but she doesn't really make you feel all that emotionally attached to the characters, so like you I hadn't felt that I would be overly upset by the ending even though something bad was going to happen. Unlike you, however, I didn't get an inkling that the husband and daughter might be dead. Never occurred to me. So, though I expected all the other stuff, I don't think I expected poor Celia to be among the victims. Oh hey! Guess there was one character Shriver managed to get me to care about!
Hannah said…
I haven't read it, mostly because everyone I know who *did* read it kind of winced and said "well, don't read it when you're depressed".

CHECK. I'll pick it up in ten years.

I know exactly what you're getting at with the concept of clumsy manipulation vs. skillful manipulation. When an author pulls that clumsy shit, it drives me BONKERS. Pulls me right back out of the story, and leaves me feeling (usually) kind of stupid for not tweaking to it sooner. It's... cheap is I guess the word I'm looking for. Tawdry.

I think maybe I'll continue skipping this one. Like Nicole said, I'm struggling to see where the benefit to me would be in reading this one.
I didn't read it, but I did read the plot synopsis of it on Wikipedia so I already knew what happened. (This, by the way, is something I do a lot of when I am curious about the hoopla but suspect I don't want to spend hours getting drawn into something I'd rather not be drawn into.) It's not for me. Everyone just sounds too effed up for me to deal with.
Alexandra said…
You're made of steel, woman.

I could never enter this world.

Just this review -- so expertly written my god someone should pay you to do this send it quick for syndication -- made me sick.
Ms. G said…
For some reason I decided I wanted to watch the movie a few months ago. It was brilliant but screwed with my head in a permanent way. Don't know what would happen if I read the book.
Amy said…
I read it, and experienced the same 'what the hell' moment when she introduced Celia. I saw it coming, I knew what he had left at home for her before she found it. The fact that she claims at the end of all this to love him, that I just didn't get. She hasn't loved him his whole life but suddenly she does?
I'm still not sure what I really think about it. I didn't like Kevin but I didn't really believe him either. And I didn't like Eva. Didn't like Franklin.
clara said…
Wow. You know I am going to find this book as soon as possible because now I *have* to read it.

Does that make me sound sick & weird? I have visceral reactions to TV/movies but not books, if that helps. Don't hate me.

Will report back in [handwave] a month or so.
Patti said…
I heard a lot of buzz about this book and knew you were reading it. You know my thoughts on reading stuff like this--my heart can't stand it.

I've thought about situations like this and wondered if there are any cases where mothers have killed a child to protect their other child(ren). Might be an interesting twist.
Julie Harrison said…
I wish I had your talent for describing a book and how I felt about it! I read this ages ago, but just came across you review now. The Celia bit I liked. I like getting caught out. It's clever ... maybe manipulative, but clever! I think what I found most intriguing was the lingering attachment (mother guilt?) the mother had towards her son, despite everything he'd done. I've seen this in real life too.

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