Book Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

I’ll be slowly bringing over all of my Goodreads reviews to this blog, past and present.  Enjoy! 

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.  I honestly feel I’m doing you a huge solid here by saving you the trouble of reading this, but there it is.

The hype surrounding Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is enormous, what with the film and all, so I obviously jumped in to see if it was worth the fuss.  Plus, I’m a stickler for the most part about reading a book before viewing the film.  The plot sounded intriguing on the covers: Eva Khatchadourian is struggling to cope with the school shooting her son is responsible for, and the fact that it ultimately never should have surprised her.  In reading other reviews on Goodreads, the opinions seem divided between “powerful and intense” and “this is bull; no mother would feel this way about a child”.

In the end, I call BS on Shriver, but not for the typical reasons.

I can absolutely believe that a mother could not love her child, could sense that something was wrong, could resent his very existence, even.  I never once found myself questioning Eva’s feelings, nor Kevin’s evolution into school shooter; anyone familiar with the literature on sociopaths is aware that there are cerebral differences that are perhaps hardwired at birth, much the same with pedophilia.  Eva is foolish enough to embark on motherhood as some sort of adventure slash means of pleasing her husband, and like many women who have children for the wrong reasons, the bond is simply not there as one might expect.  I know this to be true because my own mother had me as a lark, a means to ensnare my father into marriage and further, in that Maury Povich way, imagined that I might be a cute little doll to dress up.  When the permanence and full scope of the parenting role became apparent, she resented my every breath, piling on the psychological abuse until I moved out at seventeen.

No, I do not find myself disbelieving the plot; in fact, it’s pretty solid for the most part, aside from the utter predictability of (SPOILER) these letters to Franklin being pointless exercises, what with him being dead by Kevin’s hands and all.  Saw that coming from the first page.

What really ticks me off about this book is the writing style.  I consider myself an articulate woman with an expansive vocabulary, an intelligent and astute woman like Eva.  Thus, I speak from a lived understanding when I say this:  no one, especially a grieving woman, talks like Eva!  No one.  The entire novel, but most notably the first two thirds, reads like a first-year Creative Writing student abusing a thesaurus, determined to drop as many fifty cent words as possible to impress the professor and somehow demonstrate genius.  All it demonstrates, in my opinion, is an incredible failure to establish a genuine character voice.  Her narration is unnecessarily obtuse and snooty, almost as if Shriver is determined to have the reader walk away feeling inferior.  “I am the master of words!” Shriver declares with every contrived sentence and endless pseudo-sociopolitical tirade Eva launches into.

This book desperately needed an editor willing to say, “Stop being such a pretentious twit.  Oh, and cut this book down by fifty pages, because the pacing blows in the first half.”  By the time the story truly picks up the pace, one is already unsympathetic to Eva due to the aloofness created through Shriver’s tone.  One might argue that we are meant to be detached from her, meant not to relate, but that would render the book useless, in my opinion; the apparent point is for us to understand what, on the surface, seems foreign (a mother who believes her child evil from birth).  Perhaps herein lies the reason why so many reviewers hate Eva and find her cold and unbelievable: the labyrinth of words constructed in an obsession with synonyms constructs a wall far too high to climb, with far too little to be gained for the effort.

Undoubtedly, Shriver believes this commentary on school shootings to be brilliant and timely; in the end, it’s pure cliche and only serves to suggest that the Orange Prize is awarded purely for the number of unique words used within a novel.  It’s a shame; this book held such promise for its story.  In the end, it’s weighed down and sunk by Shriver’s need to show off.

Congratulations; I too can use a thesaurus.  Colour me unimpressed.  Sometimes, the greatest writing is plain on the surface, but utterly poignant.  Consider that next time.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

  1. Luxembourg says:

    This book is difficult to get into at first, but stick with it. It’s worth it at the end. This is about a completely dysfunctional family. The parents have a son, Kevin, that they don’t realize is going down a road that is, ultimately, going to affect the entire family, and several other families in the community.
    Kevin is not getting everything he wants or needs out of life, so he turns to violence as the answer.

    • Amber Waves says:

      I did stick with it, or I wouldn’t have reviewed it. I respectfully disagree though. The story isn’t what’s hard to get into; it’s the overly pretentious writing that drags it down.

  2. Trisha says:

    I completely agree with your review. It’s a pretentious and indulgent book. I got through it, mostly because I paid for it. I found myself saying, “Yeah, right,” out loud while reading her conversations with Kevin at her visits. Who the hell talks to their teenaged kid that way? Give me a break, really. Honestly, there were paragraphs and sections so heavy and wordy that I couldn’t do anything else but skip them. But then did find myself a bit intrigued and wanted to find out about the shooting. Although this story had potential, it just misses it. Playing with the eyeball? And she keeps coming to see him? I don’t know. Like her character, I tried to believe it, but just couldn’t.

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