Book Reviews

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Clearly I’m late to the party on this book and that’s okay. I didn’t see the movie first, but now that I’ve finished this I want to because Tilda Swinton is the BEST.

First off, this is an incredibly touchy subject since the overall plot of the book is a son carries out a school shooting and the story unfolds via letters from the mother to the father. This kind of tragedy is all too real for far too many parents. And it picks at the questions that everyone asks: what made the kid do it? Where did life fail him/her? And the toughest one of all: what can be done to make sure it never happens again?

This was one of the most uncomfortable books I’ve ever read. Eva (Kevin’s mother) is far from the nurturing parent we expect her to be. Franklin, by Eva’s description, is more in love with the idea of the perfect nuclear family than his actual family. Kevin appears to be cruel and distant from the earliest age, but again, it’s told from Eva’s point of view so we have to question how much of it was true and how much of it was spurned out of resentment.

The story goes through Franklin and Eva’s early marriage–they’re NYC lifers. She’s the founder of a very successful company. He’s a location scouter. She very obviously has the larger income and he has a very nostalgic idea of how relationships are supposed to work.

Eventually, to fill the gaps, Eva thinks it’s a good idea to have a baby–but when she does get pregnant, she’s disappointed by the whole thing. She expected to feel some innate change within her soul and it doesn’t happen. When Kevin is born, she expects to instantly fall in love but she doesn’t. Kevin, just minutes old, resists her. According to her recounting.

The years progress and Kevin appears to be a calculating, vindictive, genius child. His commitment to making things difficult for his mom are impressive. His night and day behavior for his mother and father make you wonder if he has a mental disorder, except that it’s so precise, it has to be on purpose. His interests (or lack of interests) make it impossible for Eva to relate to him, and they trade blows as to who can outwit the other constantly.

Since it’s all told in the past tense, we know Kevin is in jail. We know that Eva goes to visit him weekly because she doesn’t know what else to do. We know that he killed 9 people and severely injured another. And we know that his defense cost Eva a fortune. A civil suit cost her everything she had left and she’s now a regular employee of a travel agency. Her prestige is gone. Her entire way of life is over–she lives only now to blend in and avoid being noticed.

The letters are honest. Eva is trying to come to terms with everything that’s happened, all the while trying to understand her part in what Kevin did. It’s heartbreaking, and well written, and the whole time I didn’t want to empathize with Eva, but I found myself doing just that. She’s not a likable mother figure–she probably shouldn’t have had children but it happened. But as much as I want to vilify Kevin, because I know the whole story is being told from Eva’s perspective I can’t help but question the validity. Or maybe I want to hold on to the idea that we can somehow do something to stop these kinds of things from happening by paying more attention.

It’s a book that impacted me personally. I have kids in school and although I’m not the church-going type, I pray that nothing like that ever happens to them. It would absolutely shatter my world, as I can only imagine it has done to parents who have had to deal with this kind of horror. But at the end of the day, I have to admit to myself that I have absolutely no control over it and I have to rely on hope. And that’s scary as hell.

Lynne Ramsay is a very gifted writer and she has my utmost respect for taking on such a subject and treating it as well as someone can. If books are written to make you see things in a different way, this one delivers. And if she wanted to shock you into caring more about the horrors of school shootings, it works incredibly well. And now I have to consider the idea that sometimes shit happens because some people are just out there to make the world burn.

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