All parents — at least, the ones in my house — dream bright dreams for their children. “Maybe she’ll be an executive chef when she grows up. And she can teach other chefs on t.v. Like a nicer Gordon Ramsay,” we say hopefully, after she’s trashed the kitchen for the third time in a week while making herself a favored meal of French toast and hot chocolate. “I’ll bet he’ll be an architect,” we speculate, after we battle for an hour before we FINALLY drag his ass toward his homework and away from Minecraft, where he has been hard at work building a four-story complex with balconies, diamond floors, spires, a zombie jail, and a teleportation device. We don’t say, however, “Maybe he’ll grow up to perpetrate mass murder on seven of his high school classmates, a beloved teacher, and a cafeteria worker who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This is the situation in which Eva Khatchadourian, the prickly and embattled narrator of Lionel Shriver’s unflinching exploration of the dark side of motherhood, finds herself. Eva’s son, the titular Kevin, is in prison for doing all these things and more, and it’s up to Eva, in a series of soul-baring letters to her estranged husband, to excavate her own conscience and figure out where it all went wrong.
Eva herself is quite a piece of work, alternately self-flagellating and insistent that, gee, the damn kid just came out that way. And the evidence is strong that Kevin was a little shit from day one. On the other hand, Eva has been ambivalent about motherhood from the start, and her husband, the steadfastly obtuse Franklin, is no help at all — he yells at Eva for dancing while she’s pregnant (it could hurt the baby!) and turns a blind eye to her very real concerns as Kevin’s behavior grows increasingly alarming. In her narrative, Eva relentlessly, almost clinically, lays out for Franklin the way her love for her family (which eventually expands to include the sweet, passive, and not terribly bright Celia) wars constantly with her resentment for all of them, and her guilt because she knows that deep down, she and Kevin aren’t all that different — maybe he’s just more honest about who he is.
Although Eva constantly references other high school mass murders, at times reciting them like a litany, Shriver really isn’t all that interested in theorizing about why such atrocities happen. It’s clear that if Eva is to be believed, Kevin has never been precisely “normal,” whatever that means. Instead, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a character study of a very unhappy woman who believes that she deserves to be unhappy, and maybe she does, but maybe she doesn’t, and her hate is a form of love and her love is a form of hatred. Through Eva, Shriver takes you on a powerful, haunting journey. Whether or not it’s a journey you’ll be glad you took is another question entirely.