Imagining Kevin

by Chris Bertram on March 9, 2009

I finished Lionel Shriver’s “_We Need to Talk about Kevin_”: (“UK”: )
this morning. Shriver writes superbly, with acid observation dripping from every paragraph of Eva Khatchadourian’s letters. Nor is pleasure (if that’s the right word in this case) only gathered from the writing: Shriver’s plotting and characterization are brilliant – so much that I didn’t see coming. Also impressive is the fact that Shriver gets inside a parent when she isn’t one. A commonplace view is the non-parents can’t really imagine how becoming a parent changes your attititudes. Part of Eva’s problem is that, in her case, it doesn’t — but there’s an imaginative gap to be bridged nonetheless, and Shriver gets across it, and right into the dynamics of a disastrous family. Those who have read the book already will also know that it deals with _big questions_ ™. Since the premise of the book is a mass killing at an American high school, it gets a head start on that. The central idea of the book, that children come into the world with definite personalities that escape their parents’ attempts at moulding, but that society (teachers, politicians, other parents) hold parents responsible anyway, also seems plausible. Discussions on CT (often initiated by Harry) have often dealt with this. A book that I’m keen to recommend to everyone: and certainly one that you should read before Hollywood gets hold of it.

(Irritating fact: when I got to the last page of the book, I was confronted by two further pages with the title “Reading group questions that have arisen from publication of _We Need to Talk About Kevin_ in the USA.” Eva Khatchadourian would have been disgusted.)

Commenters please avoid plot spoilers.



Neil 03.09.09 at 1:30 pm

The central idea of the book, that children come into the world with definite personalities that escape their parents’ attempts at moulding…

I thought the book left this issue open. One possibility is that Eva is responsible for Kevin’s personality; that she is a resentful mother (and that the [plot spoiler deleted]).

Btw, and pedantically (I can’t help it, I do philosophy of biology), there is no inference from or even to . We are far from being able to predict, let alone control, the way that endogenous and exogenous developmental resources interact; that doesn’t alter the fact that they do interact to produce the phenotype.


Neil 03.09.09 at 1:32 pm

urgh, half of what I wrote was deleted. I was trying to make the point that failure to be able to impact the personality does not show it is innate.


kid bitzer 03.09.09 at 1:36 pm

“A commonplace view is the non-parents can’t really imagine how becoming a parent changes your attititudes.”

yeah, i think there is something to that view. and i don’t think that a brilliant novelist’s ability to do otherwise really undermines it much.

novelists (and playwrights) are freaky that way–the really, really good ones get into people’s heads. heads that, by right of their own background, they ought to have no ability to inhabit.

but if you think there are any good rules of thumb of the form “people of type x are generally unable to understand the experiences of people of type y,” then there will be some novelist somewhere who can be cited against it.

that gives us reason to marvel at the talent of some novelists, but no particular reason to reject the rule of thumb. (not that you were asking us to, cb).


Chris Bertram 03.09.09 at 2:27 pm

Just deleted a plot spoiler from your comment, Neil.

Yes, I think you could fairly say that the book leaves that possibility “officially” open, but not all that open. At least that was my reading.


Phil 03.09.09 at 2:40 pm

I haven’t read it, but my wife loathed it – on her account (backed by a minority of reviews I’ve read) Kevin’s a psychological absurdity, the mother only slightly less so, and the big questions are set up so fraudulently as to make them meaningless. And the form is fake too – it’s set up as an epistolary novel, but really isn’t.


alkali 03.09.09 at 4:23 pm

I would suggest that CB emend the before-the-jump sentence to “Warning: Comments may include plot spoilers.” I’m not sure what kind of useful discussion of the book is contemplated that would involve efforts to omit any reference to the significant plot developments in the book. Of course, it’s not my blog, and feel free to ignore the suggestion.


JamesP 03.09.09 at 4:33 pm

*cough* The epistolary novel thing as a fake is kind of a spoiler too. Sort of. Though, honestly, I pretty much saw that coming from the start. It’s a shame CT doesn’t have [spoiler] [/spoiler] tags, really. (Then people could discuss A THEORY OF JUSTICE without giving away the thrilling twist at the end!*) Couldn’t we just mark the thread as for those who’ve read the book?

Anyway, spoiler-free, I liked it very much, though slightly less when I reread it. I don’t think the big questions are set up fraudently; the whole dynamic between Kevin-as-sociopath and Kevin-made-by-rejection works pretty well, although Shriver *is* slightly overfond of presenting a cynical/iconoclastic viewpoint and then undercutting it in the last chapter or two – she does the same in GAME CONTROL and DOUBLE FAULT. It’s very good on power within some kinds of marriage, too.

*A THEORY OF JUSTICE does sound awfully like a P.D. James title, come to think of it.


Chris Bertram 03.09.09 at 4:51 pm

Oh I thought that the claim that the epistolary form was fake was sufficiently ambiguous not to be a plot spoiler.


dsquared 03.09.09 at 5:32 pm

#7: I tried to introduce spoiler tags, but it didn’t catch on.


Zeba 03.09.09 at 8:11 pm

I enjoyed, if that is the right word, the book very much, and suggested it to my bookgroup (exclusively women, all expat mothers in Brussels, some working, some not). They loathed it with a visceral response similar to that of Phil’s wife, except for one other woman, who like me didn’t take it too seriously but found it very readable and provocative. I continue to recommend it when people ask for a good read because it does make you think, it does jolt you, and I am interested in the development of personality and all the influences on it.

But…I just wondered, my book club friends were sooooo vehement, and the main cause of their vehemence was Eva’s mothering techniques/characterisation. Which made me wonder. Generalising wildly, I’ve recommended this to rather more women than men (simply because I know more women than men), but the men who have read it have not had a visceral reaction to it, where a majority of women are on a scale from dislike to loathing of the book. I suspect that women readers, particularly if they are mothers, find Eva’s character threatening because she is a caricature of the Bad Mother. And I suspect that every single one of us who are mothers, particularly in this era of Mommy Wars, have a sense that we are in some way Bad Mothers but none of us wants to be like Eva.

The book does call for considerable Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and I think there was something so extreme about Eva’s character that it dispelled all WSD for many of the women I spoke to. Believing in the world created by Shriver was too troubling, raised too many uncomfortable questions. I thought the worldbuilding was uneven, I have to say I saw the end coming quite early on, and I think there are enough flaws in the book for it to be a flash in the pan rather than an enduring classic. On the other hand, more recently I read my first (and last) Jodi Picoult novel on the same theme, called, I think, ’19 Minutes’, and compared with that, Shriver’s story is original, much better crafted and much more interesting.


Phil 03.09.09 at 8:58 pm

For what it’s worth, the ‘fake epistolary novel’ comment wasn’t about plot but about style. Not having read the book I can’t really comment, but – as a general point – if it reads like this:
“Dear John, So much has happened since I last wrote that I hardly know where to begin!
then it’s an epistolary novel.
If it reads like this:
“Dear John, It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
then no, not really.


Chris Bertram 03.09.09 at 11:06 pm

#11: the former.


Phil 03.09.09 at 11:37 pm

Not what the other half said.


Alan 03.10.09 at 12:07 am

I must say I saw the ending coming an absolute mile off. I did enjoy it though.


Z 03.10.09 at 6:39 am

What about people who likes spoilers? I enjoy very much listening to a good story told by people I respect, and I will in all likelihood never read this particular book, so I am all for a bit of spoiled fun. Pretty please.


garymar 03.10.09 at 6:47 am

spoiler alert! Hamlet doesn’t survive and neither does Ophelia.

I’m with Z above: by all means have spoilers. Put a spoiler alert at top so that people currently reading the book can be warned off. However there are many many more books I’ll never read than I will so I like to have a synopsis of key points.


lt 03.10.09 at 12:17 pm

I read somewhere that Shriver was trying to decide whether to have children and wanted to write the worst possible scenario of motherhood. I found it incredibly compelling – not in the least because of the empathy she has for Kevin. It’s an interesting book to me in that the writing is pretty straight forward; she’s not going for some of the artifice of “literary” fiction, yet the real psychological problems at the heart of it are much more serious than in much “serious” fiction.


Chris Bertram 03.10.09 at 1:09 pm

Oh I thought the writing was very good. In fact I almost thought about a post in which I contrasted Shriver’s style with that of the dreadful Proulx (“artifice of “literary” fiction” indeed) who I think of as possibly the worst living writer in the English language, with _The Shipping News_ as Exhibit A.


Cian 03.10.09 at 10:36 pm

Having skimmed the book in Borders I think I’d put Shriver up as a candidate; there did seem to be some astonishing overwriting going on.

Can’t comment on the book, but Shriver does have a habbit of saying mad things about parenthood on TV/radio. Actually mad things generally. Strange woman, probably best she didn’t become a parent.


kid bitzer 03.10.09 at 11:40 pm


“I found it incredibly compelling – not in the least because of the empathy she has for Kevin.”

odd–did you mean to write “not least because of the empathy”?
that would mean: the empathy was one reason–and a fairly major reason–why it was compelling.

what you wrote means: the empathy had nothing to do with why it was compelling.

i had never before noticed how “not least” and “not in the least” could act as functional antonyms in adverbial position.


lt 03.10.09 at 11:47 pm

#17 –

Um, yeah, that’s what I meant.


praisegod barebones 03.11.09 at 5:58 am

On the general topic of what’s a spoiler and what isn’t (and when it matters), some might find this thread interesting:

(potential timesink…)

Chris 18: You know the joke about the word spellcheck that alters EAP’s surname from Proulx to Prolix; and the reviewer who decides not to change it back?


dsquared 03.11.09 at 8:05 am

I was confronted by two further pages with the title “Reading group questions that have arisen from publication of We Need to Talk About Kevin in the USA.”

I suspect that it’s going to worsen rather than ameliorate your irritation to find out that these don’t come from genuine book clubs are usually written by random hacks[1] for beer money.

[1]Including on a couple of occasions, me – I don’t think I’ve ever done one on a book I hadn’t read at all, but I did do a few on books I hadn’t read very thoroughly. On the other hand, I’ve been to a couple of book clubs and by casual empiricism, I doubt I did much marginal harm.


Chris Bertram 03.11.09 at 8:15 am

_I don’t think I’ve ever done one on a book I hadn’t read at all, but I did do a few on books I hadn’t read very thoroughly._

Well if I’m representative of the people who wrote stuff on piece-rate for the Children’s Enclyclopaedia Britannica (circa 1985) ……


Phil 03.11.09 at 9:00 am

What interests me about Proulx (who is surely only a couple of stops out of Stephen King Prolixity on the way to Thomas Pynchon Somewhere-Beyond-Prolixity, and nobody seems to think they’re dreadful stylists) is the name change. I like to think that she did a speaking tour in the north of England and got sick of people making the “Eee, Annie Proulx” joke.

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