“We Need to Talk About Kevin” Book Review

Reading “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver was illuminating. Published in 2004, this work of fiction is timeless in light of the school shootings in cities across America and the gun violence on the west and south sides of Chicago. Unfortunately, young people are still murdering one another in public without real consequences, which continued ten years later. Although Kevin is a fictional character and his family, self-absorbed mother Eva, deluded father Franklin, and sweet daughter Celia offer a rare glimpse into why someone walks into a public space, pulls out a weapon, and kills another human being.

Television pundits love talking about black pathology and the cycles of poverty as reasons for shootings on the west and south sides of Chicago occur. But, unfortunately, their motives are tenuous at best. One thing all of these shooters have in common is a lack of love and attention in the home.

It’s hard to understand this, especially when someone sees a person like the character Kevin. In an epistolary novel, Eva writes to her husband, Franklin, sharing all her thoughts on their murderous child Kevin. She talks about her ambivalence about becoming a mother, her disconnection from Kevin from the day he was born, his disturbing disposition as a child, and her visits with him in jail. Unfortunately, Eva, as a narrator, is often irritating and self-absorbed. She goes on frequent rants about other Americans and their “ignorance.” Eva is an Armenian who sees herself as more intelligent, sophisticated, and well-educated than her American peers. Once, she shares a rant with her son, and he systematically shuts her down, points out her hypocrisy and makes her feel foolish. I clapped at the end of this scene, grateful that someone had finally told Eva off effectively.

It is clear that Eva never wanted Kevin but had him to appease her husband, a man she described as wanting a “Leave it to Beaver” household. His inability to see Kevin as a real person, plus Eva’s disgust with her child, created and fostered a disconnected son. Is it possible for a child to feel rejected from the womb? Both his parents reject Kevin but in different ways. Neither one is taking a genuine interest in him. Eva rejects him because she fears him and sees him as evil. His father rejects his negative side and only tries to see the good in him, not dealing with the reality that his son had major issues from an early age. Neither parent knows how to communicate and co-parent. 

After being told to watch the movie numerous times by my sister, I thought my sympathies would lie with the mother. But, instead, Kevin is the most sympathetic character in the book, despite his horrific actions. It’s clear his parents were not interested in their parental roles and were unprepared for the realities of raising a child. 

The lack of healthy parental engagement is a common link between the white, affluent, middle-class shooters in schools and black/Latino, poor shooters on the streets. We all like to imagine that people like Kevin have a “good” life: a home, car, safe neighborhood, two parents present, access to various resources, and money. While they may have external advantages, what they may not have are internal ones. Who loves them? Who is committed to getting to know them? Who takes a genuine interest in them? Who is there for them emotionally and spiritually? What community is available to help raise this child? Kevin was abandoned by his parents even before he was born. Despite the abundance of material wealth they possessed, Kevin did not grow up in a “good” home.

Still, Kevin is responsible for his actions and in the novel, he admits this as well. Here is his explanation for why he went on a murder spree when asked by a reporter: “You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio…Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch  a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching…All these people Marlin, ‘What are they watching?…People like me…The way I see it, the world is divided into the watchers and the watchees, and there’s more and more of an audience and less and less to see. People who actually do anything are a goddamned endangered species.” (p. 354).

These are Shriver’s words, and her points are valid. We are a nation of watchers. With tablets, phones, computers, television, and books, we spend our days watching other people and their lives, whether fictional or real, unfold. While books, television, and film have been around for years, I think what is different for this generation, starting with the significant shooting at Columbine High in 1999, is the combination of watching various forms of media and the lack of good parenting. Several parents are absent in mind, body and/or spirit. These parents have no interest in having or raising children. These parents are interested in advancing their careers, tending to their significant others, and developing friendships. Their becoming an afterthought and are no longer a priority. “We Need to Talk about Kevin” and all the other children we are not taking care of as a society.

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