I won’t bore you with the basic premise of We Need to Talk About Kevin. If you are reading this, I’m sure you know it is constructed as a series of letters from a mother to her husband, as she tries to make sense of her son’s recent killing spree.
Let me start by telling you what I like about this book. Shriver is a master of structure. She knows exactly what to tell us and when, withholding certain information until exactly the right moment and then dangling just the right amount in front of our eyes, drawing us deeper and deeper into the murky depths, just when we thought we couldn’t take any more. Although this is a difficult and painful book to read, I read it reasonably quickly, precisely because of this luring quality.
The grand questions Shriver tackles are also brave and admirable. Nature vs. Nurture; Good Vs Evil; Conjugal Roles and can we/ should we love our children, no matter what? Yet these issues are clouded somewhat by one of the book’s major flaws.
On page 307, Kevin says to his mother, ‘Is there anything or anybody … you don’t feel superior to?’ Here, he grasps exactly what is wrong with the book. Eva is constantly and tirelessly superior for 400 pages. Franklin is blindly optimistic to the point of tedium - and, here’s the rub, Kevin is so constantly bad, that there’s absolutely no possibility that anyone could love him in any meaningful way. In fact, by about a third of the way through, his actions fail to shock me, I’m rolling my eyes and thinking here we go again.
In other words, the characters are flat, to the point of being one dimensional. I find myself wishing that once, just once, Franklin would lose his temper with Kevin; that Kevin would - I don’t know - offer to help with the laundry or something and that Eva could narrate just one incident without some clever, sarcastic aside. My problem is not with disliking the characters, I’ve read many books where I’ve hated characters with a passion and yet still cared what happens, because I believe in them.
To me, We Need to Talk About Kevin was like watching Tom and Jerry, where one of them (Tom? Jerry? Who cares? And that is just my point) gets flattened by a steam roller again. Shriver would be more qualified to make us uncomfortable if Eva was a little more like us, if Kevin was more like our kids, sometimes good, sometimes bad. It would have been a better book, if I’d been left thinking, there but for the grace of God, rather than, well, that’s all right then.