(Audio)Book Talk: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, by Lionel Shriver

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (cover image via indiebound.org)
We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel
Lionel Shriver (Wikipedia page) (Goodreads)
Audiobook read by Coleen Marlo
Harper Perennial (2006), Paperback (ISBN 006112429X / 9780061124297)
Fiction, 432 pages
Source: Purchased paperback; purchased audiobook (Harper Audio, 2011; Audible ASIN B006QGIFWC)
Reason for reading: Personal (long-term TBR, topical fiction)

Opening lines:
“Dear Franklin,
“I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we’ve been separated, I may most miss coming home coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet; the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards. Were you still installed in my kitchen, slathering crunchy peanut butter on Branola though it was almost time for dinner, I’d no sooner have put down the bags, one leaking a clear viscous drool, than this little story would come tumbling out, even before I chided that we’re having pasta tonight so would you please not eat that whole sandwich.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Eva never really wanted to be a mother—and certainly not the mother of a boy who ends up murdering 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, Franklin. 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.

Comments: There’s mom guilt, and then there’s Eva Katchadorian’s mom guilt. Many parents struggle with an outsized sense of responsibility for their kids’ failings, but most kids’ failings don’t extend to the murders of seven classmates. And most mothers’ guilt isn’t complicated by an ongoing, years-long struggle to bond with their children in the first place, but Eva wonders if her conflicted feelings about motherhood may have somehow come across to her son even before he was born, foreshadowing a relationship characterized by cold distance and mutual suspicion. Although she was miles away on that Thursday in April 1999 when Kevin Katchadorian joined the infamous ranks of high-school killers (his deeds would be overshadowed by the events at Columbine High School just a few weeks later), Eva seemed all too ready to be tried and convicted for her own parental mistakes. But almost two years have passed since “Thursday,” and Eva is finally ready to work through the story, from the beginning, to explain her side and explore her self-blame.

I’ve had Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin in TBR Purgatory for years. Although Shriver’s subsequent novel, The Post-Birthday World, was one of my Books of the Year in 2008, I’ve found it difficult to bring myself around to reading …Kevin; not even a movie adaptation could spur me to “read the book first” (the fact that I really didn’t intend to see the movie anyway may have factored in there too, to be honest). The Newtown shootings were what finally tipped the scales, I’m sorry to say–although, since I read this as an audiobook, the print copy remains where it was and is technically still TBR. But I’ll probably give that copy away or donate it somewhere. We Need to Talk About Kevin may be one of the best books I’ll never want to read again.

Presented as a series of long, highly detailed letters from Eva to Kevin’s father, Franklin, written over the fall and winter of 2000-2001 and culminating at the second anniversary of their son’s attack on Gladstone High School, the novel is essentially a monologue. Eva makes it clear that she and Franklin saw their son very differently from the very beginning, and she strongly implies that Kevin wanted it that way by being different with each of them. But because this is Eva’s telling, anyone else’s perspective is filtered through hers–we are never privy to Franklin’s responses to her letters–and at times I wasn’t sure how much I could trust that. But as the story built to its horrifying, heartbreaking climax, questions I didn’t even realize I had were answered, and my skepticism was thoroughly quashed.

The American idealization of motherhood can make it complicated for a woman to admit when it doesn’t come easily for her–any woman who’s struggled with meeting her own expectations about the role, let alone those of her family and society at large, may be unsettled by Shriver’s expression, through Eva’s voice, of feelings we don’t like to feel. Along with its uncomfortable emotions, …Kevin also addresses unpleasant facts. Teenagers launched a shocking number of killing sprees during the late 20th century, and Shriver references many of them; I was surprised by how many of those news stories I remembered. (Perhaps because my own son was in school throughout the 1990s, I was especially attentive to school-violence stories then.) We all know Columbine was not the last of these incidents, but it was far from the first.

I’ve found that sometimes an audiobook performance points up weaknesses in the writing, but that was rarely true here. While I didn’t love some of her character voices, for the most part, Coleen Marlo’s reading made me appreciate just how good Lionel Shriver’s writing was. We Need to Talk About Kevin is fascinating, frustrating, shocking, and memorable, even as it goes to places you might prefer to forget. It’s an important novel, and I think I’ll be adding it to my short list of Books Everyone Should Read…but just once.

Rating: Book 4.25/5, audio 3.75/5
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