We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver, 2003
The gripping international bestseller about motherhood gone awry. Eva never really wanted to be a mother—and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday.
Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails. (From the publisher.)
In a series of compelling and introspective letters to her estranged husband, Franklin, Eva Khatchadourian dissects her married life and her mothering of her son Kevin and daughter Celia in the aftermath of Kevin's Columbine-like school slaying of seven classmates, a cafeteria worker, and a teacher.
Worried that her son's murderousness might have resulted from her deficits as a mother, Eva probes the most intimate and shocking aspects of her inner life, her marriage and her resentment of motherhood. This literary page-turner tackles the sensitive proposition that mothers can be unmoved by—and even dislike—their own children.
Eva struggles with her lack of ready emotion when Kevin is first placed in her arms and with the subsequently hellish years of parenting a boy who both refuses to speak until the age of 3 and be potty trained until the age of 6, and who seems to enjoy nothing but the taunting of his mother. Having dramatically scaled back on her satisfying and profitable career, Eva becomes a stay-at-home mom who discovers that her son, while seemingly slow, is whip-smart and vindictive—and cunning enough to play for his father with disastrous results. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a searing and complex look at the reasons couples decide to have children, the parent-child relationship, marriage, and the limits of love and loyalty. (Also from the publisher.)
• Birth—May 18, 1957
• Where—Gastonia, North Carolina, USA
• Education—B.A., Barnard College; M.F.A., Columbia
• Awards—Orange Prize
• Currently—lives in London, England.
Lionel Shriver (aka Margaret Ann Shriver) is an American journalist and author born to a deeply religious family (her father is a Presbyterian minister). At age seven, Shriver decided she would be a writer. At age 15, she informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel because she did not like the name she had been given, and as a tomboy felt that a conventionally male name fitted her better.
Shriver was educated at Barnard College, Columbia University (BA, MFA). She has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and currently in London. She is married to jazz drummer Jeff Williams.
Shriver had published six novels before the 2003 We Need to Talk About Kevin. She called it as her "make or break" novel., referring to the years of "professional disappointment" and "virtual obscurity" preceding it.
Its publication in 2003, We Need to Talk About Kevin made Shriver a household name. Beautiful and deeply disturbing, the novel asks one of the toughest questions a parent can ask of themselves: have I failed my child? When Kevin Khatchadourian murders nine of his classmates at school, his vibrant mother Eva is forced to face, openly, her son's monstrous acts and her role in them.
Interestingly enough, her agent rejected the manuscript. Shriver shopped her book around on her own, and eight months later it was picked up by a smaller publishing company. The book created a good deal of controversy, but achieved success through word of mouth. As Publisher's Weekly comments, "A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far." Kevin won Shriver the 2005 Orange Prize.
Her experience as a journalist is wide having written for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Economist, contributed to the Radio Ulster program Talkback and many other publications. In July 2005, Shriver began writing a column for the Guardian, in which she has shared her opinions on maternal disposition within Western society, the pettiness of British government authorities, and the importance of libraries (she plans to will whatever assets remain at her death to the Belfast Library Board, out of whose libraries she checked many books when she lived in Northern Ireland).
The Post-Birthday World was issued in 2007. The novel uses a parallel-universe structure follows one woman's future as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men. In 2010 Shriver released So Much for That, which was subsequently named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Her work The New Republic came out in 2012, and Big Brother, inspired by the morbid obesity of one of her brothers, in 2013. (Adapted from Barnes & Noble and Wikipedia [retrieved 6/11/2013].)
A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far. A gifted journalist as well as the author of seven novels, she brings to her story a keen understanding of the intricacies of marital and parental relationships as well as a narrative pace that is both compelling and thoughtful. Eva Khatchadourian is a smart, skeptical New Yorker whose impulsive marriage to Franklin, a much more conventional person, bears fruit, to her surprise and confessed disquiet, in baby Kevin. From the start Eva is ambivalent about him, never sure if she really wanted a child, and he is balefully hostile toward her; only good-old-boy Franklin, hoping for the best, manages to overlook his son's faults as he grows older, a largely silent, cynical, often malevolent child. The later birth of a sister who is his opposite in every way, deeply affectionate and fragile, does nothing to help, and Eva always suspects his role in an accident that befalls little Celia. The narrative, which leads with quickening and horrifying inevitability to the moment when Kevin massacres seven of his schoolmates and a teacher at his upstate New York high school, is told as a series of letters from Eva to an apparently estranged Franklin, after Kevin has been put in a prison for juvenile offenders. This seems a gimmicky way to tell the story, but is in fact surprisingly effective in its picture of an affectionate couple who are poles apart, and enables Shriver to pull off a huge and crushing shock far into her tale. It's a harrowing, psychologically astute, sometimes even darkly humorous novel, with a clear-eyed, hard-won ending and a tough-minded sense of the difficult, often painful human enterprise.
The timely topic of Shriver's (Double Fault) eighth novel is sure to guarantee lots of attention, but the compelling writing is what will keep readers engaged. This is the story, narrated in the form of letters to her estranged husband, of Eva Katchadourian, whose son has committed the most talked-about crime of the decade-a school shooting reminiscent of Columbine. From the very beginning, the reader knows that Kevin has been found guilty and is in a juvenile detention center, yet the plot is never stale. Shriver delivers new twists and turns as her narrator tells her story. Through Eva's voice, Shriver offers a complex look at the factors that go into a parent-child relationship and at what point, if any, a parent can decide if a child is a hopeless case.
The bad seed/nurture vs. nature theme updated as a teenaged sniper's mother tries to understand the why behind her son's criminality, in a series of letters to her not so mysteriously absent husband. Two years earlier, when he was not quite 16, Kevin Khatchadourian went on a murderous rampage and now lives in a juvenile facility, where his mother Eva visits him regularly if joylessly. Although she has won a civil suit brought by a grieving mother who held her parenting responsible for Kevin's acts, Eva does not doubt her accountability any more than she doubts Kevin's guilt. Is she a bad mother? Is he a devil child? The implied answer to both is yes. Eva and her husband Franklin were happily married until she became pregnant in her late 30s. The successful publisher of bohemian travel guides who loves her work, Eva is more ambivalent than Franklin about the prospect of parenthood. When Kevin is born, her lack of instantaneous maternal love is exacerbated by Kevin's rejection of her breast. The baby shows—or she sees—plenty of early signs that he is "different." He refuses to talk until he's three or toilet train until he's six-a matter of choice, not ability. Babysitters quit; other children fear him. Franklin, a bland, all-American type about whom Eva talks lovingly but condescendingly, notices nothing wrong. He defends Kevin against all accusations. When Eva's daughter Celia is born, the contrast between the children is startling. Celia is sweet-natured, passive, and a bit dim, and Eva is amazed how naturally she and the girl bond. Meanwhile, Kevin grows into a creepily vicious adolescent whose only hobby is archery. The impending disaster is no surprise despite Shriver's coyly dropped hints. Eva's acid social commentary and slightly arch voice only add to the general unpleasantness—which isn't to say Shriver lacks skill, since unpleasantness appears to be her aim. Not for the faint-hearted or those contemplating parenthood.
1. Non-maternal, ambivalent mothers are one of the last taboos — and Eva is a prime example. Were her motives for having a baby entirely selfish? And if so, how much can that have factored into the outcome of an abnormally difficult baby and apathetic child? Incontrast to Kevin, Celia was loving, needy and sweet — and her mother's favorite, if not her father's. By the very end of the novel, has Eva's love for Kevin, or at least her primitive loyalty to him, finally become unconditional? How does this fit in with the feminist ideal of motherhood?
2. Is Eva's view of Kevin colored by her ambivalence about motherhood in general, or perhaps by hindsight knowledge of his eventual violence? Is Eva responsible for creating a child she sees as a monster, or was he a monster all along?
3. Eva's tone changes throughout the course of her letter-writing. She is in turns angry, frustrated and mystified. Could you describe Eva as a loving mother — in deed if not in thought? Was Kevin overly indulged by a parenting style that let him potty train and learn at his own pace?
4. Did the inclusion of a child into Eva and Franklin's stable, loving relationship cause the rift between them? Did the fact of a child threaten their marriage? How was Kevin perceived as a threat by Eva from conception? What expectations did Eva have of motherhood and how did she meet the reality of it? Was Franklin unsupportive of Eva?
5. The irony of Eva having read Robin Hood to an ailing, needy Kevin at a time of almost shocking mother-son bonding is played out in the way Kevin massacred his fellow students and the teacher who took an interest in him. Since it is Eva who connects Kevin's fevered state with her recollection of his unusual interest in anything whatsoever, is it possible that Kevin's methods were meant to figuratively slay his mother?
6. After Eva throws Kevin across the room, she takes him to the hospital. She confesses later on to Franklin, "However much I deserved rebuke, I still preferred the slow burn of private self-excoriation to the hot lash of public reproof." Are Eva's letters to Franklin her form of self-excoriation, though she is suffering public reproof as the mother of a mass murderer?
8. Does Eva feel responsible for Kevin's series of nasty deeds and childhood "pranks?" Does she think she could have prevented any of it? Does she come to realize why Kevin would harm other children or does she give up trying to understand? How can we sympathize with a mother and father who saw all the warning signs but failed to stop the violence?
9. Given that the story is told from Eva's perspective only, can she be trusted as reliable? How do you think Franklin's version of events would have differed? Might Eva choose to portray Kevin in childhood as more wicked than he really was, if only to make her seem less culpable for his crimes as a teenager?
10. What were Eva's reasons for having a second child? Did Franklin forgive her for the deception? Was she repentant? How closely were her expectations met and was she gratified? How did Franklin's attitude toward Kevin and Celia differ?
12. Toward the end of the novel, it is revealed that Kevin has more complicated feelings about his mother and some of the 9 people he murdered. This gives us a hint as to why he might have carefully planned and carried out Thursday. Does he seem pathetic or more deserving of compassion because he may have had a motive, after all?
13. At the conclusion of the novel, did you find Eva sympathetic in a way you may not have initially? Do you think Eva has sympathy and forgiveness for herself? Is she able to accept Kevin, and to see his personality as, however uncomfortably, akin to her own?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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