Thursday, January 20, 2011

We Need to Talk about Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin: a novel
Lionel Shriver
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (July 3, 2006)
2/5 stars

One of the reading challenges I'm doing this year is the Take a Chance Challenge. Number ten had several options and I chose this one:
Random Book Selection. Go to the library. Position yourself in a section such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Children (whatever section you want). Then write down random directions for yourself (for example, third row, second shelf, fifth book from right). Follow your directions and see what book you find. Check that book out of the library, read it and then write about it. (If you prefer, you can do the same at a bookstore and buy the book!)

With that in mind, the last time I went to our local used bookstore, I went with this written down:
Fiction aisle
Left hand side
20th column
4th row
7th book

We Need to Talk About Kevinis what my hand landed on, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider moving one over either direction. Sure, it was sandwiched in between chick lit, which I don't read, but. . . This just didn't look all that good. But, a commitment is a commitment and We Need to Talk About Kevin it was.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ms. Shriver attempts to tell the story of events, reasons, undercurrents leading up to a school massacre. The story is told from the point of view of Eva, the mother of the murderer, in the form of letters Eva is writing to her husband.

This is a very large undertaking and the premise is great. Ms. Shriver has an excellent story to tell, and at times it is well told and even gripping.

Unfortunately, the very style of the story (letters describing events to a person who was there) was a draw back. It made for very awkward language as Eva told Franklin what he already knew (with such phrases as "You told me. . . ", "You gave me. . . ") and gave a very egocentric feel to the novel from the first page, as Eva describes her her life to one who knows it intimately. I suppose this was to set up for surprises later in the book, but it simply didn't work.

The story of Eva's relationship with her husband and son would have made for interesting reading, but it was so hard to get past the fact that I was reading a novel, due to the self-important (and unrealistic) style and language. This is "a novel", and the reader is not going to forget it. There were times, though, that the story was interesting enough for me to over look this (hence the 2 stars instead of 1), but those instances were few.

In addition, We Need to Talk About Kevin is simply too long. Ms. Shriver spends too much time on details and issues that don't add to the story and that could easily have been pared. Other school shooting incidents discussed in detail, the 2000 election fiasco in Florida referred to again and again, feelings examined in minutiae. . . This book weighs in at 400 pages in oversized paperback, and would probably have been a good novel if 1/4 of that had been left out.

Another difficulty I had with We Need to Talk About Kevin was the discussions (generally arguments) between Eva and Franklin (recounted in detail by Eva to Franklin despite the fact he was there) about their son. These conversations were not realistic, read like how a young person might imagine adults talk, and certainly did not read like adults talking about their own children. Perhaps Ms. Shriver intended this, used it show the difficulty between Eva and Franklin. Perhaps, but to this reader it did have any purposeful use, and made reading even more difficult.

Due to the over-scrutiny, the self-importance and the length, by the time the book ended, the "surprise" was no surprise and the ending was simply a relief. If Ms. Shriver had kept with just the basic story, and had Eva give it in a different format, this could have been a stellar read. As it is, I advise you give it a miss.

Note: This is just my opinion; 52% of the reviews on Amazon were 5 stars.


  1. OK, you win. That doesn't really sound like a book I want to read. I'm picky about novels, though, that's why I did my random choice in the non-fiction section! I like the idea of making the choice in a used bookstore, that would be nicely random.

  2. Well, I was envious of your gutsiness to try nonfiction! I wish I had been that brave. I may try it another random time!