Monday, September 3, 2007

We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is one of those books that I will remember for a very long time. Originally published in 2003, Shriver won the 2005 Orange. My hardcover copy has 400 pages.

From Amazon:
"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. A gifted journalist as well as the author of seven novels, she brings to her story a keen understanding of the intricacies of marital and parental relationships as well as a narrative pace that is both compelling and thoughtful. Eva Khatchadourian is a smart, skeptical New Yorker whose impulsive marriage to Franklin, a much more conventional person, bears fruit, to her surprise and confessed disquiet, in baby Kevin. From the start Eva is ambivalent about him, never sure if she really wanted a child, and he is balefully hostile toward her; only good-old-boy Franklin, hoping for the best, manages to overlook his son's faults as he grows older, a largely silent, cynical, often malevolent child. The later birth of a sister who is his opposite in every way, deeply affectionate and fragile, does nothing to help, and Eva always suspects his role in an accident that befalls little Celia. The narrative, which leads with quickening and horrifying inevitability to the moment when Kevin massacres seven of his schoolmates and a teacher at his upstate New York high school, is told as a series of letters from Eva to an apparently estranged Franklin, after Kevin has been put in a prison for juvenile offenders. This seems a gimmicky way to tell the story, but is in fact surprisingly effective in its picture of an affectionate couple who are poles apart, and enables Shriver to pull off a huge and crushing shock far into her tale. 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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc."

At first I wasn't completely sure about Shriver's using letters written by Eva to her husband to tell the story, but it soon became a very compelling way to look back at what may have gone wrong in their family. I was quickly completely engulfed by the enormity and pain in Eva's written recollections of her family. Since I absolutely had to finish it, I read the end in the car while my husband was driving us out of town for the weekend. This is a heart wrenching novel. The subject matter alone is disturbing.

Shriver has a very good vocabulary. I noticed that several reviews at Amazon mentioned her large vocabulary and claimed that they had to read this book with a dictionary at hand. Although I didn't find her mastery of the English language overwhelming, I did notice that Shriver had a gift of using the right word in the right place, and sometimes it was a big word. Don't let the vocabulary stop you from reading this book.

"What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child? Of course you consider putting that very question profane. Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it's against the rules, isn't it, to actually have a baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn't. But a Pandoran perversity draws me to prize open what is forbidden."

"But any woman who passes a clump of testosterone-drunk punks without picking up the pace, without avoiding the eye contact that might connote challenge or invitation, without sighing inwardly with relief by the following block, is a zoological fool. A boy is a dangerous animal."

"[I]f I extracted one lesson from my tenth birthday party it was that expectations are dangerous when they are both high and unformed."

"I didn't care about anything. And there's a freedom in apathy, a wild, dizzying liberation on which you can almost get drunk. You can do anything."

"Yet in my experience, when left to their own devices people will get up to one of two things: nothing much and no good."

Very highly recommended.

reread and reviewed again on July 31, 2009:

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