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October 3, 2010

On reading We Need to Talk About Kevin for the THIRD time

I have determined that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin might be one of my all-time favourite books, because I’ve just read it for the third time in five years and devoured it as ravenously as I did the very first. That first time, I was blown away by Shriver’s twist at the end, which I never saw coming and totally stunned me. The second time, I read to discover whether the book would be as good if I knew what would happen, and it was, because I could pay attention to the details that rushed by me and meant little before I knew how things would unfold. This third time, I wanted to read it to see how realized her depiction of motherhood seemed now that I was a mother myself, however the answer to this question wasn’t quite what I came away with.

What I’ve found most overwhelming about reading We Need to Talk About Kevin this time is what a fascinating narrator Eva is, her very unreliability so unreliable, or perhaps it’s not, which is the point. How this book is always framed in terms of the “issues” it addresses, but in strictly literary terms this is a phenomenal novel.

It’s not about motherhood, or maternal ambivalence, or school shootings. This is a novel about character, and how we present ourselves to the world, how we orchestrate our narratives. Eva being particularly privileged in this respect, as the novel is organized by letters she’s written to her estranged husband, and we have to consider what she chooses to present, to leave out. Does she have less control of the story than she seems too? Are we meant to be so much reading in between the lines, or is this precisely what she might have intended?

As much as the novel is about motherhood, I think it’s more about marriage. And though there is a coldness to Shriver’s novels, she is preoccupied as a writer with intimacy, with the domestic, with the closeness of married life. The dynamics between Eva and her son are far more straightforward than those between Eva and her husband– she presents him as such a doofus, but claims that he’s the love of her life. How could she love such a doofus? Or else, how could she present the man she loves with so little respect? Or maybe that’s just as much as Eva is capable of loving anyone, which puts her back at the centre of the story, the catalyst. Was Franklin the victim of what happened, or was his refusal to acknowledge the problem what only made it worse? She does suggest a framing where he is to blame. Were the family alliances different all along from what they seemed? Or is it just convenient for Eva to have us think this way? By the end of the book, Eva has somewhat redeemed herself as a mother and as a wife, but it’s interesting to question how much such redemption is just her own imposition. The ending she insisted on carving out of this tale.

This is the kind of novel you can come back to over and over again, but it will never just settle down and simply be one thing. It always just escapes one’s grasp. The plot is often boiled down to “nature versus nurture”, but such a simple dichotomy is just the beginning of what goes on. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a multi-headed beast, and I love that about it.

And yes, Shriver’s motherhood is spot-on in many places. As is her distinction between being a good mother and trying to be a good mother, and on the experience of motherhood as transformative or otherwise. I identified with Eva’s experience of failing to bond with her newborn child, which is so much the opposite of everything we’re set up to expect, and though my love grew with time, Kevin the monster baby was not always so far from my reality either. All of this testament to Shriver’s incredible imagination, which is evident in all her novels, as she imagines her way into the wholeness of a character’s life, the intricate details of how they spend their days.

Anyway, third time through it becomes clear to me what a truly “great” work this novel is, and I look forward to returning to it down the line to see what it’s become by then.

4 thoughts on “On reading We Need to Talk About Kevin for the THIRD time”

  1. I’m so glad to hear that the third reading was so rewarding! I suggested this to an acquaintance who wondered what book might make for an interesting discussion in her book club and apparently most of the people thought it was a terrible choice, whereupon for a second I felt badly, and then I just made the mental note to decline any future invitations because clearly that would not be the bookgroup for me! There are sooo many things you can talk about with this novel! LS frightens me and amazes me, makes me want to be a better reader and a better writer, in equal measures.

  2. Ditto.

    You have nailed why I love this book, even though I only read it once. Maybe I should pick it up again…

  3. patricia says:

    Ok, I promise I will finish reading this book. And maybe even read it for a 2nd time.

    And yeah, LS frightens me, too. I seen her in person, and she be one smart, scary little lady.

  4. Rona Maynard says:

    You’ve just solved the problem on my mind: which novel to read next? This one has haunted me since my first read a few years ago and is now demanding to be picked up again.

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