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Old 7th Sep 2005, 22:56   #1
maxivida
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Default Lionel Shriver: We Need To Talk About Kevin

I read some negative comments about Lionel Shriver here, but having read some reviews of We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was intrigued enough to give it a go.

And a strange thing happened. I don't know if any of you have ever been impressed by a book you didn't particularly like. That's exactly how I feel right now, after I've finished We Need to Talk About Kevin. This book has so many flaws I don't even know where to start. It's problematic on many different levels. First of all – the style is very realistic, almost like a documentary. You wouldn't expect a fairy tale to be hidden underneath it, but that's exactly what the plot and the characters amount to: Kevin is a devil incarnate who manages to fool his gullible father into never even suspecting there's something wrong with him, although his behaviour is openly psychotic, right from the crib. His mother (the narrator) is onto him, and although she sees all the evil brewing inside her son, she never attempts to seek professional help, not even after openly accusing him of an endless list of crimes before he goes on to commit the greatest one. Although babysitters never last for more than a day, although the boy has absolutely no friends, and other parents are avoiding their family, the father sees nothing wrong with Kevin and shuns all of his wife's attempts to open his eyes. Yet the mother never really blames him, although it's only his denial that's keeping Kevin from ending up in a mental institution for kindergarteners. She loves him for old times' sake (?!). Even when they decide to separate, it's him who initiates it.

None of it is very credible: the son is nothing but evil, the daughter nothing but good, the husband nothing but naïve. They are one-dimensional. On the other hand, the mother is a very complex and interesting character, maybe because we have direct insight into her psyche, as she is the one telling the story. Sometimes she's just a spoiled brat, sometimes she's languid, but mostly she's doing the best she can, and this is, in fact, pretty believable.

As far as the plot is concerned, the "unexpected" ending is over the top; for the sake of the Grand Finale, Shriver delays telling what's happened to the husband and the daughter, but we can guess. Sure enough, the scene does make an impact, but at what cost? After having lost all those dear to her (the people that, throughout the novel, she's not even allowed to mourn, or brood over the meaning of their deaths and her survival, in order not to spoil the narrative surprise), does it seem believable that the mother would embrace the murderous psychopath son she's always hated? I don't think so.

Another thing I found a little bit annoying was that the dedication alludes that this is the 'worst case scenario' Shriver has escaped. And precisely the fact that Lionel Shriver is childless gives the story a taste of sour grapes. I couldn't escape the feeling that she was consoling herself and somehow justifying her decision not to have children – you see, they could turn out to be psychos. Or if not psychos, stupid little plastic dolls with no personality.

Still, the storytelling is captivating. LTAK is a relentless page-turner of the kind that are not easily forgotten. There are many memorable passages, everything abounds with vivid descriptions and remarkable thoughts. It may not work that well as a whole, but parts of this novel are certainly exceptional. For instance, the final "bonding" between mother and son is immaculately executed and genuinely moving if viewed on its own, but in light of his crimes, it's just not believable.

I give it three stars, which usually means "indifferent" or "mediocre". And I am everything but; as I said, I am impressed. And disappointed at the same time.
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Old 8th Sep 2005, 1:22   #2
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Maxivida,

I read this book when it was first published and I have to say that I think you hit it spot on. I didn't like the characters nor was I impressed with the writing all that much. For some odd reason however, the book stays with me. It is one of those stories that is not easily set aside.

In my face2face book group we all have agreed ,even though it was begrudgingly (is this even a word ?), that the author should be given her due she did inspire some sort of emotion.


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Old 8th Sep 2005, 20:14   #3
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I agree completely. I hated the characters and the author by the end of the book, but still had to admit it was interesting and possibly brilliant. An odd paradox.
Regarding what you said about the other characters being unbelievable, I thought that was kind of the point. I could be giving Shriver too much credit here, but don't you think, given that the story is all from Eva's point of view, that we are supposed to mistrust (in a very ironic postmodernist way) everything she tells us? Perhaps her belief that Kevin was evil from birth made her treat him differently, and thus in some way formed his character, whereas he might simply have been somewhat odd if she had accepted him for what he was. And the daughter being portrayed as entirely good could be due to Eva's perception of her in contrast with Kevin, and the fact that she doesn't have her any more, rather than that Shriver writes flat characters. Perhaps Eva is trying in some way to justify herself to her husband.
I have to say that, though I hated every single moment of the story and every single character, Shriver has to be credited with producing that strong reaction in me. I couldn't put it down.
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Old 8th Sep 2005, 21:27   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jennifer
I could be giving Shriver too much credit here, but don't you think, given that the story is all from Eva's point of view, that we are supposed to mistrust (in a very ironic postmodernist way) everything she tells us?
Well, that's a possible interpretation, but somehow, I don't think so. It is made clear from the beginning that this is her side of the story and she has no pretensions to appear objective. But I think that is precisely what's making her voice reliable and trustworthy - all her musings, not only about her family, but about the American society, the way she interprets other people's reactions, their virtues and shortcomings - it's all perfectly sensible, it's clever and well-put. She admits that she was a bad mother, and that much is obvious; but taking her coldness as a possible cause of Kevin's problems would not be right - she's not that cold, but she does say that from the moment he refused to breastfeed, she felt distant and the antagonism between them was born. Eventually, she is the only one he spares, she's the one whose picture he keeps on the wall of his cell - she is an unlikable, odious character, and if he feels close to anyone, it's her.

In the end - when the barriers between them have fallen and she asks him why he did it, he says he doesn't really know. He didn't do it because mother didn't love him or because he couldn't, wouldn't fit in, or because he hated the rest of his family - he did it because he's a psychopath, he's ill and deranged. And I suppose that's the only thing that makes her able to accept him back in her life once his sentence is served, in a way, even to forgive him. So, I'd say, she wants the reader to accept Eva with understanding, even admiration; that's what's most important, that is in the heart of her book - there's no mistrusting her point of view. Of course, because it's all written in first person, she had to make her heroine appear a little biased, the portraits of other characters through her eyes - a little cardboard-cutout (although in my opinion, she overdid it), but that's just a stylistic touch, it's the means, not the end.
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Old 3rd Jan 2006, 22:59   #5
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Default We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Well, since I've mentioned this book twice on the lists, I guess I should review it.

It was brilliant!

I did not expect this, particularly. It was gift to one of my children-and maybe that formed my first impression (not meaty enough for moi if suitable for a teen) because I'd never even heard about it until Xmas morning. Well, I picked it up Xmas afternoon and didn't put it down until I finished it about 3:00 am the next morning except for a break to stuff myself at dinner. I know I listed this as an '06 read, but I didn't want it getting lost in the '05 remains.

The book is written as a series of letters from the mother of a Columbine type perpetrator to her estranged husband, as an attempt to understand the actions of their 15 year old son.

The book is so utterly convincingly written that I had to continually remind myself that this was not a true story, but a piece of fiction. At first, the letters seemed a little wordy and far too eloquently written for mere correspondence- but as you go on, the page dissappears and it's like hearing a conversation, albiet one sided- because she never gets a letter back. Presumably, this event has proved so horrific for the marriage that in couldn't survive even contact.

Reading reviews on line, the author has been roundly applauded for tackling this subject (ands indeed, I discovered after reading it, that it won the Orange Prize in 2005) but I don't think it's just the subject matter, but how it was approached, that makes this such a brave book. The author has created not just one, but two dislikeable characters.

Obviously, Kevin (the boy who killed his schoolmates and teacher) is dislikeable- he is never portrayed as a misunderstood, bullied or mass culture influenced youth, but, from birth, as a difficult and eventually downright horrid child.

And Eva, his mother, the writer of the letters, is often hard to like as well. Her letters, brutally honest, since there is really nothing left to lose, show herself up to be self-centred, shallow, snobbish and arrogant even.

No unpleasant aspect of her personality or actions are left unexamined in an attempt to make sense of how things went so terribly wrong for this upper middle class New York family.

Also, there is no sentimentalily, no triteness, nothing unnecessary or spare.

And, to top it off, it has the pace of a well structured thriller-every piece in its place and nothing revealed to soon or too late. I won't reveal any of the story line. I don't want to give a minute of this book away and risk taking even the tiniest bit of pleasure away from the next reader

I could go on and on, but I won't. I can't say enough about this book.

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Old 3rd Jan 2006, 23:05   #6
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Default Re: Lionel Shriver - We Need To Talk About Kevin

Oryx, I've merged your thread with the existing one on Kevin. Makes for neater housekeeping and all...
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Old 4th Jan 2006, 0:30   #7
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Default Re: Lionel Shriver - We Need To Talk About Kevin

Thanks, John; I didn't even realize this thread existed. And, having read the other comments, I feel like I have to defend my over the top enthusiasm.

I agree that celia and Franklin were very flat characters-as they were meant to be. This is a love/hate story between mother and son. the other two are bit players- a part of the audience to paraphrase Kevin. And I don't agree that celia was all good-she was a little weirdo in her own right-if a harmless one. And there is a possiblity that Franklin played defender as opposed to simply being naive- he didn't trust Eva's maternal instinct, nor should he have, and Kevin always seemed to behave around him. Nor was it obvious that Kevin was a psychopath, at least until much later on (and even then), plenty of kids are downright nasty without becoming much worse than miserable human biengs. Can you imagine Franklin's reaction if Eva had suggested as much? I thought the way the family dynamic was portrayed here was very, very believable-or am I the only Palmpsester to have grown up in a dysfunctional family?

And, to classify Shriver as either justifying her childlessness or demonstrating sour grapes by choosing the is suject is to miss the whole point.

The point here is that you don't have to justify not having children-but you have to justify having them. This is the worm that is turning all the way through the story.

That ambivelance that many, maybe most honest women have these days when considering having children, coupled with the very real fact that not all women are maternal is still a very taboo subject. Witness Maxidiva's remarks that the book was either a sour grapes reaction to not having children or a justification. The implicit idea there is that women who choose not to have children are either selfish or will somehow regret it later . I think it was brilliant and brave of Shriver to portray a woman like this and to have her son turn out te way he did.

Can you really read this story and put his behaviour down to her regrets of becoming a mother? I think not. In the end no one can answer what happened to Kevin.

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Old 13th Mar 2006, 14:48   #8
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Default Re: Lionel Shriver - We Need To Talk About Kevin

I enjoyed this sardonic piece by Lionel Shriver in today's Guardian on the bittersweet taste of literary success. File under Be Careful What You Wish For.
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Old 14th Oct 2006, 22:18   #9
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Default Re: Lionel Shriver - We Need To Talk About Kevin

Like many of the palimpers above, I found this book fascinating but also deeply unpleasant. I disliked Eva completely and felt that she was manipulating her telling of the story to make herself sound better. All that building up to 'oh, but I'm not blameless, I once did something terrible...' which culminated in a single act of violence which was thoroughly provoked sounded to me as if she was lying through her teeth and covering up a litany of other abuses - perhaps not physical but emotional shortcomings in relation to her response to Kevin - and saying to her husband 'I really only did this one truly mean thing'. Not dissimilar to the way a dishonest and unpleasant person will admit t a smidgeon of guilt for a relatively minor fault and be in denial about the true extent of their nastiness. My underlying feeling the whole way through was that NO child is born 'evil' - to say they are is a total cop-out. Certainly there are some sadistic serial-killers who turn out to have been nasty as kids too, pulling the legs off ants etc, but I can't believe for a moment that a baby could be born and immediately be cruel, taking pleasure in causing pain. My impression of Eva was that she not only had the small faults she admitted to but that she had in some way been emotionally cold and withholding from Kevin, perhaps ignored his crying, constantly snapped, been unresponsive. I just didn't trust her and in that respect, I have that in common with Jennifer, above.

I am not putting the blame for psychopaths onto their mothers, but the story would for me have been far more credible and believable if Kevin had been a normal toddler and small child and then, like the majority of those teenagers who turn to violence, gradually undergone a withdrawal and immersion into a world of fantasy/violence/drugs etc. Representing him as Satan incarnate from babyhood was for me absolutely disbelievable.

Having said that, I did keep reading and was glued to it. It was well written and very easy to read, the letters dragging me into the intimacy of the details about Eva and her family's life in the same way as reading a diary pulls you in. I am not sure what to make of Shriver - my instincts tell me that anyone who can pretend that a baby could be born evil is not a warm person and so I am a little wary of her now.
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Old 19th Jan 2007, 0:08   #10
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Default Re: Lionel Shriver - We Need To Talk About Kevin

From the Top Ten Books of 2006 thread:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kimberley
We Need to Talk About Kevin was a great read, about woman who recognises a psychopath before anyone else, and worse still, it's her own son.
Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self
A friend loaned me We Need to Talk About Kevin the other day. I must admit that despite the universal praise, it doesn't appeal to me in a gut way. I wonder if I should read it and risk poisoning the experience because I don't feel 'into' it, or will it win me over?
Quote:
Originally Posted by Kimberley
I don't know... reading it might be a bit of a poisonous experience anyway. The subject matter is a particular horror of our time and I don't think it's giving away too much to say that this is related to Vernon God Little in a way that illustrates some of that other book's limitations.

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't a perfect book... worse, one of its flaws is being quite a bit longer than its narrative strength really justifies. But there are very few books that are perfect, this one is definitely well above average, and like I said, one of this year's more satisfying reading experiences for me. I'd give it a go.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lizzy Siddal
I can guarantee, though, that you certainly won't forget it in a hurry ....
I'm just sixty pages into this and I feel I'm going to like it a lot. The general subject-matter aside, I'm already fascinated by the insights into contemporary America. I loathed Vernon God Little totally: it was the last, and worst, of three consecutive Booker-winners, after True History of the Kelly Gang and Life of Pi , which I didn't enjoy at all. Then came The Line of Beauty and The Sea , and my faith in the Booker was restored.
But I'm 99% certain I'm going to like We Need To Talk About Kevin immensely. I restricted myself to just 3-for-2 over Christmas, avoiding the temptations of 15-for-10, and this was one of the three.

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