Guest Post & Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

By Thursday, June 7, 2012
Please welcome Erin Rayfield in her debut blog post! Erin is a coworker and friend who joined my book club a few months ago. She’s smart, honest and to-the-point. I love reading her regular book reviews on Goodreads! I’m sure my readers will enjoy her review of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin
This novel is written entirely as a series of letters from Kevin’s mother to his father. I found this book to be an emotional rollercoaster, heart-wrenching from beginning to end. The first 100 pages were hard to get into, as the author uses complex sentence structure and obsolete and uncommon words (you need to have a dictionary). I did, however, get used to the language and often found myself guessing the meaning of words I didn’t know based on context (a.k.a. I was too lazy to look them up). This is one of those books that you can’t help but continue to think about after you finish reading – constantly looking around you for signs of violence in coworkers and school mates. I found there to be five themes throughout the book that make the reader think long and hard about their relationships and experiences.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

1. Not loving a child – I think every parent is scared at some point before having kids that they may not love their child or not love it as much as another. This is exactly what happened to the mother in this story. I found it depressing and scary, as I don’t doubt there are people out there who do not love their kids. But what do you do in that situation? This mother attempted to pretend (though failing at times), but at some point I think most children would catch on. The idea of this actually happening is disturbing. The book also questions how much this affected Kevin – who did catch on early – and whether this played a role in his school shooting is debatable.

2. Good vs. bad parenting – There are times in this novel when the mother describes situations that are without a doubt horrible parenting and abusive. Calling a two-year old a “little shit” and throwing a six-year old across the room are disturbing actions from any parent. However I am not convinced that the father had a great parenting style either. Although the mother automatically thought the worst of Kevin, the father would never even consider that he did something wrong. Never making your child own up to their mistakes and actions leads them to believe they can get away with anything. I think that can be almost as harmful as abuse and often causes children to push the limits just to get the negative attention. Discipline is important for any child. I actually found the very end provided closure and a somewhat heartwarming moment of parental acceptance. Our children must take responsibility for their own actions and we must let them face the consequences, however this does not mean that we should not stand behind them in the end, even if we hate their actions.

3. Nature vs. nurture – did the mother’s coldness and distance, or the father’s over-attentiveness, cause Kevin to shoot up his school? The book presents this in an interesting manner – in the end even Kevin doesn’t know why he did it and leaves this up to interpretation by the reader. I think that some kids are just more prone to be violent and if they have bad parents it can contribute to their actions. However, I think there are some people who are born evil and no matter who their parents are, they will commit crimes. On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the world that had far worse upbringings that Kevin who do not kill or hurt people. I tend to lean towards the nature argument, with a little nurture thrown in.

4. Why people commit acts of violence – Throughout the book, Kevin gives different reasons for what he did and his mother comes up with some of her own. I am not sure there is one reason or that things like this can be prevented. Does bullying contribute? Probably, but if every kid that was bullied shot up their school there would be a lot of dead adolescents in EVERY school across North America. I think this relates back to the nature vs. nurture debate. Some people are just born disturbed and in the wrong situations it comes out. Whether it be to be a “watchee”, as Kevin describes it, or revenge, or just attention, I don’t think there is one clear path that can prevent this type of violence 100% (from schools or work places).

5. Media and rubber-necking – I found that the author delved into what the media, and public as a whole, contributes to these situations. It is very true that a lot of people make money off of extreme acts of violence and the news and TV would be boring without them. We all talk about trying to prevent them, but cannot help ourselves from following every gory little detail when they happen. Does this attention itself spur some of the perpetrators into action? Probably. Will society ever change? Probably not. Perhaps not giving these people the attention they crave could be a deterrent.

All in all, I found We Need to Talk about Kevin a thought-provoking read. I found all of the characters to be well-developed and intriguing, even when I hated them. The novel will haunt me for weeks to come, I am sure. Despite its disturbing subject, I think it is an excellent book and would recommend it to everyone (especially book clubs – lots of great discussion matter). Closing our eyes and ears to unpleasant subject matter will not make it go away. Rather, addressing it head-on is the best way to bring it out into the open for discussion.

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