Kevin’s not only a killer, and a chillingly creative one, but he’s joined the exhausting litany of troubled white boys taking out their angst on innocent peers; he’s the grisly topic of nightly talk shows … While Shriver attacks the phenomenon with unflagging gusto (she heavily researched the real-life school murders of the late 1990s), she isn’t preoccupied with figuring out what motivates these young men, nor does she ruminate on how a vapid American society creates adolescent monsters. Thank God for that — what we get instead is a much more interesting, thoughtful, and surprisingly credible, thriller … Eva, in her scathingly honest and often witty recollections of her relationship with Franklin, her agonized decision to give up a life of traveling for motherhood, and her painful years with (the truly hideous and apathetic) Kevin, faces the question head on: Am I responsible for what my child has done?
This is the popular refrain whenever kids shoot up a school: Why didn’t the parents do something to stop them? Do the parents of killers neglect their kids, fail to see the warning signs? In this novel, the question gets answered pretty quickly. Despite a disclaimer that 'neither nature nor nurture bears exclusive responsibility for a child’s character,' it’s pretty clear that the title character is demon spawn from birth … The first half of the book is a series of witty ruminations on a number of topics, but the plot drags. The last half, however, really takes off as a novel: Shriver’s already balletic prose begins to dance to the beat of a purposeful narrative.
Although honesty doth not a reliable narrator make (and Eva is an impeccably unreliable narrator), when combined with perspicacity and dark wit, it magics a not-particularly-nice person into a sympathetic character. This is no small achievement on Shriver's part … At a time when fiction by women has once again been criticised for its dull domesticity, here is a fierce challenge of a novel by a woman that forces the reader to confront assumptions about love and parenting, about how and why we apportion blame, about crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption and, perhaps most significantly, about how we can manage when the answer to the question why? is either too complex for human comprehension, or simply non-existent.
Eva's sense of defeat at the birth of her son Kevin, her failure to breastfeed and the multiple difficulties she experiences with the sleepless, shrieking infant, are...familiar. Shriver isn't writing about ordinary motherhood or an ordinary boy, however, and this is where the novel begins to feel dishonest. Kevin is a monster, a gross caricature of childhood … By linking motherhood's most ordinary fears to this cartoon horror, Shriver exploits parents' very worst thoughts – that somehow, despite their best efforts, their offspring will turn out to be sociopathic – while undermining them with the implication that really, raising a mass murderer is just one of those things, much like mastitis. In this resolutely anti-parenthood and anti-children book, everything that can go wrong does.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, which takes the form of letters from the killer's mother to her absent husband, mixes an extreme version of the domestic novel with pop sociology and hard news (real-life school shootings and the Florida 2000 election fiasco figure in the background). A little less, however, might have done a lot more for this book … Shriver overwrites in every direction, but particularly in portraying Kevin as a monster from birth. That she eventually humanizes both him and her narrator makes the book memorable as well as frustrating.
In Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, a thoughtful and deeply disquieting novel about a mother coming to terms with her son's Clinton-era rampage, the question ‘Why?’ becomes a black hole, slowly drawing its narrator into an unaccountable vortex … By rescuing the incident from armchair analysis, Shriver allows herself to enter a deeper and more chilling inquiry into parenthood in general, examining the nature/nurture push-and-pull in figuring how much (or how little) parents can be held responsible for how their children turn out … We Need To Talk About Kevin uses this extreme case to breach a dirty little secret about family life: Much as parents are expected to love their children unconditionally, sometimes the kids don't turn out well–or, more shamefully, their parents don't really like them.
Although she has won a civil suit brought by a grieving mother who held her parenting responsible for Kevin’s acts, Eva does not doubt her accountability any more than she doubts Kevin’s guilt. Is she a bad mother? Is he a devil child? The implied answer to both is yes … The impending disaster is no surprise despite Shriver’s coyly dropped hints. Eva’s acid social commentary and slightly arch voice only add to the general unpleasantness—which isn’t to say Shriver lacks skill, since unpleasantness appears to be her aim.
A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far … It's a harrowing, psychologically astute, sometimes even darkly humorous novel, with a clear-eyed, hard-won ending and a tough-minded sense of the difficult, often painful human enterprise.