There’s something about reading difficult books. When I say “difficult,” I do mean intellectually but what I really mean is difficult subject matter. I like to read all different types of books of all different genres, but I do think it’s important to read stories that are sometimes terrifying, sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes disturbing and sometimes all three. I like to read for fun as much as the next person, but I also like to read stories that make me think differently about the world that we live in. This desire brought me to reading the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
To say that this book disturbed me would be an understatement, but I don’t necessarily use “disturb” with a negative connotation. This book made me think a lot about relationships, motherhood, siblings, gender roles, and on and on and on. It disturbed me because of the content but I’m not sure I responded to it quite the way that many previous readers have. This is the part of the blog post where I’m going to say that if you haven’t read this book, you may not want to read further. Spoilers ahead.
I suppose I should back up and say that I didn’t technically read this book. I listened to it on audiobook. The book caught my attention several months ago when I saw some press for the film adaptation featuring Tilda Swinton. I had heard about Shriver on NPR and caught a few snippets of interviews with her. I was interested in her and her book, but I was afraid that if I picked up a book at that point in the semester, I would never finish it. My solution came in the form of an audiobook borrowed from the local library. Over the course of about a month, I listened to the story while driving to and from work.
The audiobook that I got on loan from the library featured an interview with Lionel Shriver at the close of the story, and I was very interested to hear her thoughts about the public reception of the book. It was this interview that made me realize that my main reaction to this book, the fact that I identified, sympathized and liked the protagonist, Eva, from the start, was a bit of a reach for most readers.
The premise of the book is Eva writing to her husband, Franklin, a series of letters detailing their lives together in the aftermath of their son, Kevin, shooting and killing several of his classmates, a teacher and a cafeteria worker. The letters chronicle Eva’s struggle through motherhood and her marriage after Kevin’s arrival and they also examine her struggle to come to terms with what her son has done. The audience is lead to believe throughout the novel that Eva and Franklin are separated but it is not until the closing pages of the book that we learn that Kevin also killed his father and his little sister, Celia the same day that he perpetrated the killings at his school.
While the chronicle of Kevin’s development (or lack thereof) from infant to teenager is chilling, what I found the most heartbreaking was the slow disintegration of Eva and Franklin’s relationship. Eva details the beginning of their courtship in her letters and the discussions that led up to the decision to have a child. It is obvious that Eva has reservations and from the time baby Kevin comes home, it is also obvious that for Franklin, priorities have shifted. A specific scene that comes to mind is early in the book when Eva finds herself home alone with infant Kevin. She’s not feeling well with a fever and chills. Kevin has been screaming (as he’s been doing since he arrived in the apartment) for four or five hours and Eva is just about beside herself. Franklin arrives home and as per usual, the moment he walks in the door, Kevin quiets and falls into an exhausted sleep. In the meantime, Eva is feeling worse and worse and asks Franklin to take her temperature. He shrugs her off and when she finally does take it, it’s so high he accuses her of holding it beneath a lamp. It is only after he takes her temp again himself, that they realize she is running a high grade fever and he rushes her to the hospital. It is there that she is diagnosed with mastitis.
This scene bothered me immensely because it was the first time in the story (but certainly not the last) that Franklin begins to mistrust Eva’s judgment. To Shriver’s credit, she wrote the scene remarkably well, because I felt the betrayal strongly and it was in that moment, that I began to dislike Franklin. Don’t get me wrong, Eva has issues. She is arrogant, cold, snotty and hyper critical but for some reason I could forgive her those shortcomings. I could not forgive Franklin’s willingness to blame, his blind love and ultimately his love is what killed him. It is Eva’s fierce defense of her husband in the face of all his shortcomings that makes their story all the more poignant. During one visit to see Kevin, Eva shows a rare flash of emotion towards he son when he insults his dead father.
I think this is an important book to read regardless if you have children, are planning on having children or never plan to have children. It takes on issues that are not pretty or popular but they are real and Shriver has done a remarkable job of giving that reality a voice.