I’ve just finished reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and ooh I wish I had read this as part of a book group because if there’s ever a book I’d like to talk about as part of a book group, this is it. Guaranteed to garner strong opinions and lots to talk about, this book takes the form of a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin after their son Kevin has committed a school massacre. Looking back to their life just as a couple, deciding whether they should have kids to the aftermath of the massacre, it’s compelling reading. So I’m going to form a little book group of one with myself and try and put down in words some of my answers to the questions this book raised.
WARNING BIG SPOILERS!!!!
Should Eva and Franklin ever have had children?
A firm no, not at that particular junction in their lives anyway. Eva goes into great depths in her letters about the deliberations they made over whether to have children. They were a happy couple, with a good life and Eva was a successful business woman with no apparent real interest in children full stop. She finds other peoples children boring and a nuisance and only vaguely hopes that she would find her own children more interesting. Her husband on the other hand is unhappy at the amount of foreign travel his wife does for her company (so maybe he wants to pin his wife down?) and finds other people’s children enchanting. It’s only after yet another dinner party with friends, where they yet again spend it telling tales about their ageing parents does Eva decide that it might be a good idea to have children so that they have something else to talk about, so that they’re ‘turning the page’. I can’t think personally of any worse reason to have children than to ‘move on with their lives’, so that they can have ‘something to talk about’. Eva admits to having no biological itch to want children and I think that biological itch is what counts. I remember with me personally, we’d been married for a while, knew that we wanted children ‘one day’ but it was never the right time, I was quite career orientated and we’d delay it so that I could get that promotion first and when I got that promotion I’d feel like I’d want to stay in the job for a year or two to give it my worth but then wham, I wanted kids, that biological itch kicked in and I didn’t give a tuppence about what stage my career was at, I wanted kids. I thought at the time that I’d go back to work, it turns out after Girl Lacer was born I didn’t even want to do that.
Did Eva’s rejection of Kevin start from the moment he refused her breast?
It didn’t sound like Eva had a particularly joyous pregnancy, disliking Franklin’s newly dictatorial relationship towards her regarding what she could and could not do regarding her health and the health of the baby. After a lengthy and arduous birth (where Eva had been expecting an easy one) Kevin is placed at her breast and he refuses to suckle. Suddenly the cosy images that she had been holding on to came crashing down. The seems to dislike being held by her whereas seems instantly contented in her husband’s arms.
Eva is later offered the diagnosis of postnatal depression, something she doesn’t even tell her husband and other than a label no treatment is offered. Meanwhile her husband becomes so obsessed with the baby he doesn’t even notice till pushed that Eva has become very ill with mastitis. I think if Eva had been offered some help and her husband hadn’t become so blinded by this idealistic picture of family life (something that crops up again and again) and had supported his wife more, things might have been a little different or very possibly not. I am in no way saying that Eva’s postnatal depression turned her son into a killer but it might have changed the way how his behaviours were addressed as a united realistic family if she had been treated.
Was Kevin ‘evil’ from the word go?
Right from the start Kevin cries all day, switching it off literally as soon as his daddy at home, reinforcing Franklin’s idea of the ‘perfect baby’ (he thinks his wife is exaggerating and some how against his son, a split that remains through the years). Now I know that a baby that cries all day is not evil but he’s definitely a hard baby, they hire nanny after nanny that last barely a week, the one nanny that stays does so out of loyalty to the couple and then as Eva notices her getting increasingly more haggard looking and taking more days off sick, she takes pity on her and after a barely veiled conversation about how not nice Kevin is, Eva offers the nanny a job at the tour guide company she owns. As Kevin gets older he persists in wearing nappies till 6, he doesn’t talk until he comes out with full sentences to tell his mother that he doesn’t like something, he still persists in not talking to his father for sometime after that, he develops the annoying habit of aping everything people say by going “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah”. So far, not evil, if anything it’s as if the boy needs a label (although the doctors think there’s nothing wrong with him), whereas his father thinks he’s a bright, perfectly normal healthy little boy. But then he’s found in the bathroom nursery with a girl with very bad eczema who is scratching herself to ribbons, his father thinks Kevin was trying to stop her and was traumatised, his mother thinks Kevin was egging her on. Kevin’s sister Celia’s pet goes missing, Franklin thinks Celia has just left the door open, Eva thinks there’s something suspicious about the blockage in the children’s bathroom sink and thinks Kevin is behind the disappearance. A few days later when Celia is rushed to hospital with drain clearer in her eye, Franklin thinks Eva left the drain clearer where Celia could reach it, Eva’s sure she put it away and thinks Kevin got it down and poured it in Celia’s eye. A teacher is accused of sexual abuse with Kevin as one of the victims, Franklin is furious, Eva thinks that it’s a scam from Kevin to ruin the teacher’s career. See the constant disparity, Eva sees the worse and Franklin still (as far as Eva is concerned) has this American pie picture of family bliss in his head and can see no wrong in his son and thinks there’s something wrong with Eva.
Was there something wrong with Eva?
Eva was always at the ready to see the wrong in Kevin and admits later in her letters that sometimes she was wrong but I think she was really the one to see her son for what he was. There was a scene of almost touching mother – son tenderness when she sneaks into Kevin’s room and finds a collection of computer discs, taking one to look at in her computer, she unleashes one of his collection of 23 computer viruses onto her computer and her company’s network. She returns the disc and actually has a really good conversation with her son about why he collects computer viruses, showing actual motherly interest.
NOW MAJOR SPOILERS!!!!! PLEASE DO NOT READ THE NEXT QUESTION IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK
What did you think Franklin thought of all this?
Throughout the book I was painfully aware that this was a very one sided story, we had no idea what Franklin thought, how did he feel about the shooting and why did it appear that he had custody of Celia, who was definitely more of Eva’s child. The answer that Kevin had also killed Franklin and Celia was surprising, the cover of my book (which is the one above, the latest issues have a different cover) and the fact that Eva talks to Franklin like he’s very much alive made me think that he was actually alive. So the story remains one sided, if Franklin had been alive would he have blamed Eva for somehow turning Kevin so that he did what he did, would he have still clung to his decent boy American pie image or would he have been even more devastated than Eva, would he have refused to see his son, have nothing more to do with him? I think Shriver handles very well Eva’s imaginings of Franklin’s last moments, his rush out into the garden, Celia pinned to the archery board, thinking the scream he’d just heard was actually a scream of fun, that it was just a trick of the eye making it look like Celia was on the board, that Kevin was really just turning to him to wave and then that illusion breaking down as the arrows hit and he dies with a disappointed look on his face.
END OF MAJOR SPOILERS
What do you think the book says about school shootings?
I think this aspect of the book made very interesting reading, talking about why these kids did it, the excuses they made, the impact they had on other students in other schools and most importantly the (some would say) over reaction other schools had in their efforts to stop such atrocities happening in their schools. Shriver through Eva talks about the rash of shootings were copycats and the kids’ attempts to get fame and that how eventually like any trend it would get passe.
Eva thinks of herself as a bad mother, was she one?
No, I don’t think she was. I think most of the time she recognised her son for who he was, whereas Franklin didn’t have a clue and I think Kevin in the end respected Eva for that and disliked his father intensely. Eva was hampered considerably by Franklin’s insistence on seeing that nothing was wrong. If he had agreed to what Eva had suggested of sending Kevin to a military school, things may possibly have been different.
The way how she stood by her son, even in jail, considering all he done, was quite frankly admirable and showed true motherly love.
Finally, I’ve read that some people would not recommend this book to people expecting a baby and others with children finding it too uncomfortable to read, what do you think?
I would definitely recommend this to someone expecting a child and I’d recommend it even more to those at the thinking about it stage. The book has the important messages of being absolutely sure you want children and to present a united front as parents. I have kids but they’re both very young (and far easier to handle than the fictional Kevin ever was), so this book (at the risk of sounding cocky) does not make me nervous, it might make me nervous as a mother of teenagers though.
So, I think this is one of the longest fiction book reviews I’ve ever written. To anyone else who had read this book, I’d be fascinated to hear about what you think about the questions I’ve asked.