Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Possible Spoilers)



My Review of the Film Adaptation

Eva was a successful businesswoman and author as well as a wife and mother of two children. Now she is estranged from her husband and daughter. Her son Kevin is incarcerated, in the wake of a school shooting, for a series of brutal murders, Eva's world is cold and narrow. Her only real communication with anyone is through letters she writes to her husband, Franklin.

In this epistolary novel, Eva reflects on Kevin's history, starting before conception, leading to his becoming a vicious psychopath. She explores her own culpability in who he became, along with her conflicted relationship with Franklin.

From conception and birth, Eva was unable to bond with Kevin. Ambivalence about motherhood and the changes it would bring to her life, postpartum depression, an unsuccessful attempt to breastfeed, and the exhaustion that goes with comes with a baby who cries incessantly -- these are all normal experiences. Things many women have gone through before becoming basically happy moms who are madly in love with their children. But for Eva, this becomes a slippery slope, and things only become worse.

During her retelling of Kevin's earliest years, I felt trapped in Eva's mind, only able to see things from her perspective, and I suspected she was an unreliable narrator. I could only see things through the filter of Eva's memory, shaped by her own pain, frustration, and rage and by her knowledge of who Kevin became. She saw an infant who cried, not because of colic but because he raged at the world. A newborn who deliberately and vigorously rejected her breast. A toddler who slyly played his parents against one another and refused to be potty trained because he'd be losing a battle against the mother he hated. These perceptions are incredibly warped, not to mention developmentally impossible. Yet the novel drew me so tightly into the confines of Eva's reality that these things seemed quite real. And as Kevin grew into a cold, calculating boy, with an urge to destroy anyone who was capable of feeling real joy or passion, parts of it began to seem believable. Or did it? The line between delusion and reality is blurred here.

Would it have made a difference if Eva had been able to love her son? There is no clear answer. They are caught in a vicious cycle. Her attitude undoubtedly impacts his behavior and view of the world. His behavior triggers her rage and prevents her from bonding with him. This, in turn, deepens his hostility. They are locked in a cruel cycle which we know will end tragically. Nevertheless Eva, who has always relished pushing herself to tackle daunting challenges, works hard at being a conscientious mother.

In a parallel way, Eva and her husband Franklin are trapped in a destructive dance. Franklin is in denial about the fact that his son is deeply troubled. This enrages Eva, who pushes him to see things from her perspective. This only makes Franklin more fiercely protective of Kevin and distrustful of his wife. They have another baby, who becomes "Eva's child," and Franklin keeps their little girl at a distance, adding to the dysfunctional mess.

I didn't find Eva and Franklin to be likeable characters. They struck me as self-absorbed, a bit pedantic, and riddled with prejudices. Eva seldom views people with acceptance and compassion, she tends to view the world with cold detachment, and she maintains a slight sense of intellectual superiority. One of the most chilling and powerful aspects of this novel is the ways in which Eva and Kevin -- despite their animosity -- identify with each other. In her hauntingly sadistic son, Eva sees -- in an exaggerated way -- a mirror of her own dark side.

How much of this is her basic nature and to what degree is her personality painfully mutated by the tragedy she suffered? Again, we only have her perspective in the present, so it's hard to say. I also felt drawn to Eva by the insight and compassion she sometimes feels, her intense intelligence and curiosity about the world, and her love for her husband and daughter. She's a complex character who I couldn't love, or even consistently empathize with, but I certainly couldn't dismiss. And she is a character I will never forget.

This is a dark, miserable story which is likely to make you lose sleep, especially if you're a mother. That goes double if you're the mother of a child with any kind of emotional problems. And it's a brilliant novel. The central characters, and the themes this book explores, are so incredibly rich and multi-layered, it may take me months to sort through all my thoughts about it.

One of the things that makes it so unsettling is that it explores issues experienced -- on a much smaller scale -- by many parents. Difficulty bonding with a child. Raising a kid who isn't the child you expected or wanted. Seeing parts of yourself you reject mirrored in your own children. Disappointment in yourself as a parent and crippling guilt when their lives don't turn out as you'd hoped. These things sound ugly when you say them aloud, but I believe shades of these feelings exist in many "normal," loving parents.

This book also gave me insight into people with personality disorders: antisocial or borderline personalities. Eva seemed to have uncanny insight into the mind of her son, a person who seemed innately incapable of ordinary love, excitement or joy. This left him hollow and driven by rage. It's probably impossible to really see inside the mind of someone like Kevin, but there were moments -- in this novel -- when I felt I was extremely close.

This is a novel that left me feeling ragged. I want to put it out of my mind, and at the same time I don't want to stop thinking about it. I don't want to talk about it, and I'm burning to discuss it with someone. I want to see inside Kevin's and Eva's minds, but it's too unsettling.

Above all, it's a gorgeously written, challenging novel, probably one of the best I've ever read, and it's one of those rare books that shifted my view of people and of the world a little bit. It's definitely one I will never forget.

Have you read this book? If so, what are your thoughts?

36 comments:

  1. My sister with three teenage boys of her own did not thank me for getting this book for her for Christmas! I've got to give it a read after being blown away by the film!

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    1. *Smile* I can see that this isn't the perfect Christmas gift for the mom of teens! I have two teenagers, myself, which made it that much worse.

      The film was magnificent. I saw it first, then decided to read the book. I wanted to get more insight into the characters. While the movie is brilliant, the book is much richer and therefore more disturbing. If you decide to read it, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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  2. I listened to this book on audio and it blew me away. As I read Columbine recently, I couldn't help but think of this book.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Kathy. It blew me away, too. Is this the Columbine book by Dave Cullen? Do you recommend it?

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  3. From your description this novel sounds incredibly complex, in the sense that it does justice to the complications of the world. I love what you said about Eva being impossible to dismiss even if you didn't always like her.

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    1. Yes, that's a really good way of putting it, Ana. The author tackles a variety of incredibly complex issues and resists the temptation to help us make sense of it all. She also doesn't make us feel more comfortable by letting us feel we're the polar opposites of people who are troubled or even evil, if you know what I mean.

      It definitely does justice to how complicated the world is with all its shades of gray. That's part of what makes it so brutally hard to read and yet so wonderful.

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  4. Wow Stephanie, this sounds like an unforgettable and complex book, I know you watched the film recently. I'll have to read this one at some point. I can imagine it would disturb the reader, especially moms. It looks like the author did an amazing job at pulling the reader in and making them wonder.

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    1. Yes, that's a good way of describing it, Naida.:-) She pulls you in, in spite of yourself, and leaves you with a lot of questions.

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  5. This book definitely is one that blows you away. I read it for an online book club a few years ago, and that's the only reason I stuck with it. It wasn't until the 100-page mark where the book drew me in, and boy was I drained after finishing it. So worth it though.

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    1. It really was draining,wasn't it? But -- wow -- this book would make great discussion fodder for a book club.

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  6. I loved the film, but I really need to read this.

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    1. If you read this, Josh, I'll be very interested to hear what you think, especially in terms of how it compares to the film.

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    2. If I do, I'll be sure to let you know. :)

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  7. I don't think I could read this book. I have already raised five children and know the struggles that come along as the years go by. However, I must say I think my children turned out okay. This book and movie sounds like it would put me in a state of depression, and since I am enjoying my 'golden years' I don't want to be depressed. It was a nice and thought provoking review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    New follower...

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    1. Hi Ann. Thanks for visiting and following, and I will follow you too. :) I can certainly understand why this book wouldn't appeal to you.

      Two of my kids are in their teens, and one is eight. Things are really tough sometimes. I'm still waiting for that point in my life when I can look back and say I think my children turned out O.K. God willing. ;-)

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  8. I can't believe I haven't read this yet! I keep forgetting about books. Alright, creating a pinterest board to represent the books I need to read :) Thanks for the reminder!

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  9. I have to say I tend to avoid "dark, miserable" stories! LOL But I enjoyed reading your review nevertheless! :--)

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    1. Thank you! :-) I may have to swear off dark, miserable books and movies for a while. I'm getting over-saturated.

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  10. This is one I've been meaning to read, but as a momma, it sort of scares me.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean! Of course, as moms, this book might put our kids' problems into perspective. ;-)

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  11. Great review! Very insightful and beautifully written. I doubt I'll ever read the book, though, the film kinda of drained me and the story is so disturbing and hearbtreaking.

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    1. Thank you! And I can definitely understand why you wouldn't want to read the book.

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  12. This is one of those books that I've wanted to read for some time but didn't want to read at the same time. For so many of the reasons that you listed in your review. I know that it will probably be a book that I read at some point but I'm definitely going to have to be in the right mood for it. Great review!

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    1. Thanks! This is definitely not a book everyone will want to read. I postponed it for many years.

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  13. I read this story reluctantly but was so glad I did. It's not an easy story to read but I think it needed to be told and needs to be read. My thoughts on it are here:

    http://freshinkbooks.blogspot.ca/2009/01/tss-books-read-this-week_25.html

    and here:

    http://freshinkbooks.blogspot.ca/2009/06/fifth-child-by-doris-lessing-review.html

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    1. Thanks, Sandra. I look forward to reading your review.

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  14. I only skimmed your review, as I haven't read the book yet. Looks to have been a powerful, if somewhat disturbing read!

    I think WNTTAK is not for everyone, but an important story that needed to be told, the hatred directed towards the victim's parents is painful to see. Maybe with this book/film more understanding is possible of the parent's impossible situation when events occur like this.

    The story also gives a voice to feelings that are difficult for mothers to talk openly about. Maybe all mothers for 5 minutes don't like their children.

    I guess getting your thoughts down on the book here is one way of getting the book out of your system :)

    Ps You might want to add a spoiler alert at the top of your review?

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    1. Chris, Thanks for such a thoughtful and insightful comment. I agree that virtually all mothers feel some ambivalence toward their children (just as kids feel ambivalent toward their parents). But since mothers are "supposed" to be nothing but pure, constant love, this is kind of a taboo subject. :-) Even though I didn't find Eva the most likeable character, I'm glad this author had the courage to explore this.

      I also agree that it's painful to see the hatred directed toward the perpetrator's parents. If this book and movie inspires more compassion for these parents, that's a good thing. Society assumes that sociopathic kids are the result of abysmal parenting, and "good" parenting = "good" kids. Life isn't so simple. It never was.

      BTW, I hadn't really thought of this review as containing spoilers, but you may be right. I added the spoiler warning.

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  15. * not victim's parents , I mean parents of Kevin

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  16. I really want to read this, and see the movie. It sounds just so powerful and relevant.

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    1. I think it is powerful and relevant. :-)

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  17. I have been scared to read this/watch the movie for the very reason that it delves into motherhood and the nature/nurture aspect as it applies to deeply troubled adults. This would disturb me and make me very anxious.

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    1. I know what you mean, Stephanie. I felt exactly the same way. Though in terms of the nature/nurture issue, I really don't believe that -- outside of very extreme circumstances -- "bad" parenting can cause a person to be this deeply troubled.

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  18. Intense and unforgettable this book is. I will be honest I was not a fan of the film, I would have been lost during parts if I hadn't read the book.

    The book though, I can still be tortured by memories of it. Amazing characters.

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    1. The style of the movie was very visual, without a tremendous amount of dialogue and with shifts in time. I did find it confusing at times, but I didn't mind -- I thought it did a terrific job of mirroring Eva's mental state. I can definitely see where you're coming from, though. :)

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