Tuesday, February 14, 2012

book review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The backstory: We Need to Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005.

My thoughts: If you happened upon me on Twitter while I was reading it, you're probably surprised I not only finished the novel but ended up loving it. About a third of the way through, I bean to struggle mightily. Although I found Shriver's writing was gorgeous, the action was quite slow to build. As I bemoaned to Lu at Regular Rumination (who hated it), she admitted the ending was almost interesting. It, as well as my love for So Much for That (my review) and how many trusted friends loved this novel, convinced me to keep reading. Soon, something intriguing happened, and I was hooked again. I devoured the last half of the novel and haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished it a month ago.

We Need to Talk About Kevin gets billed as a 'school shooting novel,' 'the novel that will make you not want to have kids,' or 'a study of nature versus nurture.' None of those catchphrases do it justice, however. It's a deep character study of Kevin, but more so of Eva. When the novel lulled in the first third for me, it was because I was an impatient reader, ready for the action to catch up with what I knew. The novel is written in a series of letters from Eva to her husband. The title indicates this action, yet I always (erroneously) assumed the title was something people, i.e. principals, guidance counselors, and teachers, kept saying to Eva. The reader learns early on that Kevin is in prison and has a notorious reputation, which Eva has too: "I’m not sure what got into me, but I’m so tired of this. It’s not that I have no shame. Rather, I’m exhausted with shame, slippery all over with its sticky albumen taint. It is not an emotion that leads anywhere."

As Eva writer to her husband, she slowly works her way through their marriage and Kevin's life. The level of honesty and emotion Eva shares is devastating and authentic:
"Besides, much as I crave anonymity, it’s not that I want my neighbors to forget who I am; I want to, and that is not an opportunity any town affords. This is the one place in the world where the ramifications of my life are fully felt, and it’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood."
One of the questions of the novel is the responsibilities of motherhood and how they differ from parenthood. As a childless person, I read this novel with utter fascination and relished Eva's frankness:
"We’d agreed that whether we became parents would be “the single most important decision we would ever make together.” Yet the very momentousness of the decision guaranteed that it never seemed real, and so remained on the level of whimsy."
I adored this book for two reasons: Shriver's writing and Eva's rawness. She bears her soul, the flattering and the unflattering, the guilt, the doubt, the joy and the questions, for the reader. As a character study of a mother, it's fascinating. As a character study of a woman, it's illuminating and inspiring, and it's an intriguing tale of marriage.

Favorite passage: "In the particular dwells the tawdry. In the conceptual dwells the grand, the transcendent, the everlasting."

The verdict: Despite struggling with early parts of this novel, I came to love it. Shriver is a lyrical writer who has created fascinating, troubling characters. The slow parts kept this novel from perfection, but it is still nothing short of brilliant.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: March 31, 2003
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Need to Talk About Kevin from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Then check out this interview with Lionel Shriver on life without kids and the film adaptation. It's fascinating.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

31 comments:

  1. I was looking forward to your review. I'm rarely on twitter so I was surprised at your final verdict! So I guess I need to keep this on my list... LOL! I may read her new upcoming book first and work backwards from there!

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    1. The New Republic is my least favorite of the three I've read, but it was a fun, smart read. Enjoy!

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  2. I hear about this one ALL the time and we used to have a barrage of students come in to check it out of the library for school. Great review, Carrie, as I think yours is the first one to actually make me want to read it.

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    1. I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this one. Between the writing and the exploration of motherhood, it would certainly elicit a reaction from you!

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  3. I LOVED this book, but it scared the pants off of me. It was so disturbing and made me really uncomfortable at times, but as you so beautifully point out, the writing and style is just gorgeous. That ending was something else as well. Usually when I describe this book, I call it "soul crumpling" but your review really gets to the heart of things and also shows how resoundingly erudite and wonderful this book really is. Amazing and beautiful review today. So glad that I got the chance to read it.

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    1. Zibilee, it certainly is soul crumpling, and I loved it for that. The ending was inspiring to me, and the path Shriver took me on as a reader is not one I'll forget. Thanks for your kind response!

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  4. Great review. I've been meaning to read this one since I finished Shriver's The Post Birthday World and loved it. If you haven't read that one I highly recommend it!

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    1. Brenna, thanks for the suggestion! It will probably be my next Shriver novel:-).

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  5. As you may recall, my book club shot me down when I suggested it. I plan to read it with a few others the first week of April. I'm so glad that you ended up loving it even though it was tough to get through.

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    1. Yes! I'll be curious to hear your thoughts once you read it, Ti.

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  6. I was always so nervous to read this one because the subject seems so raw if you know what I mean. It sounds so worth it though.

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    1. Yes and yes. I'm definitely glad I took the plunge, but it was an intense read!

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  7. I absolutely loved this book, too, and found it compulsively addictive - I couldn't stop reading! I agree with you that it's more a character study of Eva than anything else.

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    1. Heather, once I got over the hurdle and hit the half-way point, I could not put it down. It was so compelling.

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  8. Great review! I read this book some time ago and loved it.

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    1. Marie - I was definitely late to this party!

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  9. I'm so glad you didn't hate this one! I read it back in 2007 and was just enthralled with it! I completely agree with your comment about it being more focused on being a character study than a "school shooting" book or something. That's what makes it so fascinating. I also loved how raw and honest Eva feels. She holds nothing back. Oh man, I really want to re-read this now! Wonderful review.

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    1. I loved Eva as a character! She's exactly someone I would want to be friends with in real life.

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  10. I struggled through the first 100 pages of this book and only kept reading because it was a book club pick. But I ended up being blown away by it. I thought it was very creepy, powerful, and thought-provoking in the end.

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    1. Anna - I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who struggled initially. If so many didn't love it, I don't know if I would have finished it, and that would have been a shame.

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  11. This is one of those books that has been on my TBR list for awhile now. I really want to read it because I've seen so many good reviews but I know that it isn't going to be an easy read. Great review!

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    1. Samantha - it lingered on my TBR for years too. Between the film coming out and my personal project to read all the Orange winners, I finally made time for it.

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  12. This was one of the toughest books I've ever read. (And I am a huge Shriver fan). I think about it all the time. It's chilling and well-written and very thought-provoking. And every parent's worst nightmare. I can't see the movie - I think it will be too disturbing. God, that final scene, where she finds out what he did in the backyard - it's just so awful.

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    1. Gayle - I'm excited to see the movie, especially after reading an interview with Shriver who said she thought the film was better than she thought possible given the novel. I'll be sure to review it once I see it next week:-)

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  13. I loved this book too - read it over the holidays (yes, a weird Christmas book). I just couldn't put it down. It's certainly Eva's brutal honesty that carries the novel. Whie I found it fantastic though, I am hesitant who to recommend it to. It's not for everyone I don't think.

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    1. I concur it's not for everyone. I love dark reads any time of year too.

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  14. I like this book a heck of a lot more than So Much For That. I was so disturbed by it and then the ending was a shock to me. It was weird to hear a character voice those kinds of feelings about motherhood. You never really hear it. Still, my favorite Shriver book is The Post-Birthdy World. Have you read that one?

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    1. I think my love for So Much For That is an anomaly. I was blown away by that book. I was by Kevin too, but in a different way. I hope to get to The Post-Birthday World sometime this year. I'm glad to know it's your favorite!

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  15. Great review. I agree that this novel was a character study more than about a school shooting - and it is a very powerful and disturbing character study for sure.

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    1. Indeed. I'm still processing the depth of emotion and layering Shriver managed.

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  16. This is one of my all-time favourite books so I'm really pleased to see that you ended up loving it. I didn't see your tweets, but I know a lot of people struggle with the beginning. I didn't, but I did cringe at how realistic the emotions were. No one really admits to feeling that way when they have a child so it was good to know I wasn't alone. Such a thought provoking book.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!