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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver

Kevin Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of most intense, disturbing, well-written, and deeply affecting books I have ever read. I finished it in awe of Shriver’s considerable writing talent, as well as the horrifyingly real, unforgettable story she created. I’ve struggled with this review, which is unlike me – usually I am eager to write about a book as soon as I finish it. With Kevin, though, I have found myself starting this review over and over, not entirely sure how to talk about it without giving too much away, while still giving it the credit it is due.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is the story of Eva, a woman who entered motherhood with deep ambivalence and gave birth to Kevin, a difficult baby with whom she never bonded. The book is told through letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, in which she looks back on their marriage, Kevin’s birth, and his difficult childhood and adolescence, recounting with frank honesty her experience as a mother.

Kevin is more than just a difficult child, however – he is deeply disturbed and, in the end, psychopathic. The book culminates with him executing a mass murder at his high school – a fact that is revealed in the first chapter. His first 15 years of existence are filled with incidents that grow increasingly more hateful and demonic, and the book explores how Eva feels about her son, her role as his mother, her possible cuplability in how he turned out, and her relationship with Franklin, who consistently turns a blind eye to Kevin’s evil nature and the danger he poses to his family. There is some truly horrifying stuff in here, which I won’t reveal in this review for fear of spoiling it for readers.

I know people who won’t read this book based on the subject matter, and I can understand why. But they are missing out on Shriver’s writing. She is a beautiful, eloquent writer, as I also learned from her most recent book, The Post Birthday World (reviewed here). Here is just one passage out of many that I marked purely for their craftsmanship:

[On] the birth of both of my chidren, I could immediately discern a dominant emotional tone, like the top note of a chord or the foreground color of a canvas. In Kevin, the note was the shrill high pitch of a rape whistle, the color was a pulsing, aortal red, and the feeling was fury.  The shriek and pump of all that rage was unsustainable, so as he grew older the note would descend to the uninflected blare of a leaned-on car horn; the paint in the foreground would gradually thicken, its hue coagulating to the sluggish black-purple of liver, and his prevailing emotion would subside from fitful wrath to steady, unabating resentment.

So, what is the purpose of this book, other than being what is at heart a real-life horror story? It is a thorough, modern examination of motherhood, the nature of the sacrifice of identity, and of course, an exploration of the role that parents play in shaping their children. Was Kevin’s personality ultimately a product of Eva’s ambivalence? Or was her tortured introduction to motherhood caused by a son whose antisocial and alienating personality was formed in the womb? Were Kevin’s actions meant to impress his mother, punish her, or neither? What loyalty do parents owe to their children, even at their own great personal expense?

I feel like I could go on and on about this book and still never exhaust my thoughts and questions.

A few things to add:

  • Shriver wrote an essay for The Washington Post after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. Definitely worth a read.
  • I am hopeful that Shriver will answer reader questions about the book, so please submit any questions you’d like her to answer and I will pass them along. Here are my questions:
    • Q: SPOILER AHEAD: For some reason, it was very important for me to know whether, in the end, Franklin finally understood what his son was capable of (and that Eva had, all along, been right). Was it in fact your intent, through Eva’s depiction of the expression on his face in the end as “so disappointed”, to confirm that Franklin was finally aware of who his son really was?
    • Q: I understand that you did painstaking research into other, real-life school shootings in your writing of Kevin.  In fact, Kevin contemplates that the Gladstone shooting in some ways affected some of the school shootings that came later, such as (real-life) Columbine. Have you ever gotten criticism for using real-life incidents – and such painful ones as that – as plot elements in your fictional story?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this online book club. Please share your thoughts below. I am very much looking forward to the discussion!

November/December Book Club: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver

First, here are the three winners of the giveaway of The Four Seasons, by Laurel Corona: Carey, Dr. Blondie and Sara Rush! I will email each of you for your address. Congratulations!

Kevin Second, I am happy to announce the next EDIWTB book club. For the first time, I am repeating an author, because I think she is just that good. It's Lionel Shriver's book We Need To Talk About Kevin. Her book The Post -Birthday World was a book club pick on this blog back in March, and it generated a lively debate among EDIWTB readers (see the comment thread on that post). Lionel Shriver also answered questions about The Post Birthday World here.

More recently, I posted an essay Shriver wrote about not having children, and the comments on that post were again strong opinions about We Need To Talk About Kevin. So, while I know that there are many authors out there deserving of attention and worth reading for a book club, I've chosen We Need To Talk About Kevin, despite the fact that we've read Lionel Shriver before.

It's a long book, and I want to give participants a lot of time to read it. So… if you're interested in participating in the book club, send me an email at gweiswasser@gmail.com before Saturday, November 8 with the following information in the following format (no spaces between lines):

Name

Mailing Address

Email Address

HarperCollins has again generously agreed to send copies of the book to EDIWTB readers who would like to participate in the book club. Depending on when the books go out, we'll have the discussion here on this blog in early-mid December.

Thank you very much, HarperCollins!

Update: We've reached our allotment of books from HarperCollins so unfortunately I am not accepting new names for the book club. However, feel free to buy the book or borrow it from the library.

Q&A

Lionel Shriver On Not Having Kids

I've been meaning to post this essay for a while. In the September issue of Cookie magazine, four women wrote about how they chose how many children to have. One of the contributors was Lionel Shriver, author of The Post-Birthday World, which was the choice for one of EDIWTB's online book clubs. (Lionel Shriver also answered questions on this blog here.)

You can read all of the essays here, but I want to post Lionel Shriver's essay about having no children. I haven't yet read We Need To Talk About Kevin, though I understand that it is about one woman's disastrous experience with motherhood. But I find her to be so interesting that I was glad to read this essay. Enjoy.

ZERO

By Lionel Shriver

Hot flashes every five minutes are a reminder, in my 51st year, that my decision to forgo procreation has slipped to the past perfect. I'm no longer choosing not to have children; I did not have them. Surely any reputable female could scrounge up a trace of wistfulness on this point. But I cannot bestir in myself an iota of regret. I first swore off a family at the age of 8—maybe I couldn't bear the notion of being saddled with a little girl just like me who was forever flying into tantrums—and I never looked back.

Self-satisfaction is always obnoxious. So I won't pretend that my daily routine sends me into an unremitting swoon. My work life is as plodding as most writers'; barring my marriage, my most intimate relationship is with a frequently malfunctioning computer. While I have enjoyed an extraordinary freedom, I seldom fully avail myself of its pleasures. Not once have my husband and I spontaneously whipped off for a weekend in Paris, though the city is just a hop across the channel from our London flat.

Nevertheless, I have relished my solitude. I can barely stand having even one other human being underfoot, and I prefer the kind that has already mastered the alphabet. I like my dumpy work life, and I suspect that you can measure the cost of raising children not only in dollars but also in the number of books you did not write. I would never equate literary and literal progeny; people are more important. But you cannot shut the lid on a baby for the night, or rewrite the scene of your evening so that the infant goes straight to sleep, or skip the ages 7 to 14 between chapters to pick up the pace. Children are a great deal more trouble than books.

Sounds selfish? Of course it's selfish. I'm a big believer in healthy selfishness. Parents are certain to do a better job if they're raising kids because they want to. Though the role may entail sacrifice, well-adjusted parents do not subject themselves to children like hair shirts. They may be in for some disagreeable surprises, but prospective parents must be better off planning to raise a family for their own pleasure and enrichment. I would hate to learn that my parents brought me into the world solely out of a sense of duty.

Advocating "healthy selfishness" is as close as I come to ele­vating a private decision to a political position. I'm as happy for other people to have kids as I am to have personally given the urchins a miss. I don't go on the stump and rail that pregnancy is servitude, and that all self-respecting women should cease to reproduce. Yet you would think I had done just that. Since publishing We Need To Talk About Kevin—a novel about a woman whose experience of motherhood goes, to err on the side of understatement, rather badly—I have been endlessly solicited to appear in the media as a champion of the childless. Or, as a recent nonparents'-advocacy book prefers, the "childfree," as in Childfree and Loving It!.

It is an uncomfortable role, tantamount to being anti-people. And it's not clear to me why the "childfree" would require a champion. After all, these days, demographically, we are legion. Electing to do without children no longer counts as eccentric and has ceased to confer an appreciable social stigma. So why would this contingent of the willingly unreproductive ever need to advance our blissfully independent, we-can-go-to-France-if-we-want-to liberation as a full-blown cause?

My theory? Insecurity. Because most people have imaginations and cannot quite let go of the might-have-been. However resolute, many nonparents must still suffer existential angst, and entertain for a second or two the thought that bearing children might be essential to a fully meaningful life. In short, because that perfect dearth of regret that I described at the outset is surprisingly rare.

Q&A with Lionel Shriver, author of THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD

A few weeks ago, EDIWTB held its second online book club, on Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World.  Lionel was kind enough to respond to some EDIWTB reader questions. Personally, I found these very satisfying and a lot of fun to read. Thank you. Lionel!

Here are the questions and answers:

1. Why did you choose to use major world events such as the death of Princess Diana and 9/11 as benchmarks within the story? Were they to give readers a frame of reference, or to show that even our reaction to big events are colored by the choices we’ve made?

Major world events punctuate one’s personal life, even if they may take place in the background.  My own experience of the world is always influenced by what’s happening in the newspaper.  This novel is set in a specific set of years.  Any realistic novel covering 1997 in Britain surely has to acknowledge the death of Diana.  Any realistic novel covering 2001 anywhere in the world surely has to acknowledge 9/11.

Otherwise, yes, I found these two events useful in illuminating the different ways that the two men deal with them.  Irina’s experience of world events—the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, for example—is heavily affected by whom she’s in love with.

2. Children and motherhood play a very small role in this book – in the Ramsey scenario, Irina has a miscarriage, and in the Lawrence scenario, the couple is infertile.  Neither one of these developments seems to bother Irina particularly.  My question is – did you choose not to bring children into the plot in order to make both the relationships and the ethical choices less complicated? Or did you simply want Irina not to be a mother?

Two reasons: structurally, I wanted to bring the two parallel worlds together at the end.  If one of these relationships produced a child, the two worlds would never come together.  If they both produced children, these would be different children, and again the worlds could never come together.  So I needed to devise two different routes to the same result.

Second reason?  My last book was We Need to Talk About Kevin.  I have done exhaustive—and exhausting—publicity for that novel since 2003.  That novel took apart motherhood in forensic detail.  The very last topic I had any interest in writing about was motherhood.

3. I read a review of the book that suggests that your ending shows that you have a preference for one of Irina’s choices over the other. Is that true? Do you admit to having a "favorite" Irina?

Don’t believe reviews.  No, I really don’t have a preference for one of these men over the other.  One of the pleasures of writing the novel was being able to have them both.  However, many readers have strong preferences for one over the other, which is just swell.  Happily, the readers from whom I’ve heard do not agree with which man Irina is better off, but tend to cleave straight down the middle.  Anyway, determining what Irina should have done at the end of the first chapter—given into temptation or resisted Ramsey’s charms—is up to you.

4. What was your original inspiration for the story?

I had to make a similar choice in my own life between two wonderful but drastically different men. I was on such a knife edge as to what to do that for some time after I made the choice I was haunted by an alternative universe in which I had chosen the other chap instead.  That’s where I got the idea for the structure: it mirrored my own emotional experience of second-guessing myself.

5. What has surprised you most about people’s reaction to The Post-Birthday World?

How many other women—men, too, actually—have had to make similar difficult choices in their romantic lives, and the degree to which Ramsey and Lawrence uncannily correspond to archetypes in readers’ real-life relationships.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve had a reader in a signing queue confide, “I left a Lawrence for a Ramsey, and it was a disaster!” or “I stuck it out with a Lawrence and have never stopped regretting that I let my Ramsey go,” etc.

6. I’m still stuck on the facing the wall sex, and never knowing in all those years what Lawrence wanted, and then the switch to hot incredible sex with our favorite snooker player…any basis in reality? Was it difficult to write such personal things.  How did you deal with that?   

Writing about sex is always tricky.  Another writer a long time ago warned me that “however much you make up, readers will always assume that sex scenes are autobiographical.”  I’m sure protests to the contrary would fall on deaf ears. 

I don’t think it’s important whether this or that is from “real life.”  It’s only important that these scenes resonate with other people’s experience.  So far, I’ve got the impression that they do. 

THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver


I know I am really enjoying a book when I find myself thinking about it at odd times throughout the day (in the shower, while walking the dog, etc.) and trying to cram in pages here and there whenever I can so that I can get back into the story as soon as possible.  Such was the case with the current EDIWTB online book club selection, The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. I have a feeling that this is a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Shriver’s inventive novel opens with Irina, its fortyish protagonist, facing a decision: should she remain faithful to Lawrence, her steadfast policy wonk partner of ten years, or should she kiss another man – Ramsey, a dashing yet immature snooker player? The first chapter ends at that crossroads, and from there, alternating chapters relate the two different worlds that could follow – the one in which she resists temptation, and the one in which she gives in.  Of course, Irina’s life turns out very differently depending on which road she takes, thus following the classic “what if…” daydream to its natural conclusion.

Shriver creates a detailed, convincing, flawed, yet rewarding life for Irina under both scenarios, which only makes reading this book more complex and almost tortuous, in a good way. I found it difficult to condemn either of her choices, or either of her partners.  The two men were often infuriating, yet also seemed to redeem themselves in often surprising ways.  Thus, if one of Shriver’s intentions was to convey the messy unpredictability of life and the danger of seeing things in black and white, she succeeded.

I love Shriver’s writing – eloquent, insightful, funny, rich. My copy is full of dog-eared pages marking passages I want to re-read – passages that were so well-written that they took my breath away.

Readers of The Post-Birthday World  will also notice the deftness with which Shriver sets up small parallels between the two worlds – lines of dialogue, for example, that are repeated in the two “competing” chapters (though sometimes spoken by two different characters), or identical conversations or plot points that are treated differently depending on which world we’re in (the Ramsey world or the Lawrence world).  Even something as simple as which dress Irina wears to the same event (or her partner’s reaction to that dress) takes on great significance in each post-birthday world, especially when contrasted to how it takes place in the other world.

While I was reading the book, one thing kept bothering me. I felt that Shriver had taken some license with Lawrence (as is her right, of course) – in one scenario, he seemed to have one personality, and in the other, he was very different. This bothered me because I felt like she was stacking the decks in favor of one choice vs. the other, that she was prejudicing the reader.

I was extremely lucky to be able to attend a book reading by Lionel Shriver last Friday night at Politics & Prose, and even luckier to be able to tell her in person about this reservation I had about the book. Her answer was perfect, and enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the book. As she explained, the book is not just about Irina; it’s also about the other characters in the book and how they are affected by Irina.  Her actions toward them – in this case, the reception she gives Lawrence when he returned from the business trip that provided her the opportunity to be alone with Ramsey, ultimately affected his path, as well as hers. Shriver intentionally played with how Irina’s actions changed the lives of the others in the book.

Here are some other things I learned at the book reading:

  • She wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, instead of writing about one post-birthday world in its entirety and then the next. This made it possible for her to set up the parallel narrative constructs that I mentioned above.
  • In writing the book, Shriver was interested in “the little stuff” – how who you are with affects not just your happiness but everything in your life, down to your relationship with your mother, what it’s like to go to the supermarket, your success in your career, etc.
  • The last chapter, in which Irina meets Lawrence for a drink at Club Gascon, is meant to conclude both post-birthday worlds, just like the first chapter opened them both. (Did you notice that when you were reading it?)
  • Shriver doesn’t like reading non-fiction and will only do it if “a gun is put to [her] head”.
  • Shriver was born in America and doesn’t speak with a British accent.
  • In England, “snooker” rhymes with “euchre”, while in America, it rhymes with “looker”.

I could go on and on about this book – it seems that every day I have new thoughts about it, new insights, and new appreciation for Shriver’s writing and the perfect construction of this wonderful book. But I have written enough and I’d love to hear what other EDIWTB readers have to say. So please add your comments below, and if you have any questions for Lionel Shriver that you’d like her to answer, add them to your comment or email them to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com and I will send them along to her. She has promised to answer them in a later post.

Online Book Club: THE POST BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver

Exciting news! EDIWTB is having its second online book club. The book this time is one that I have wanted to read for quite a while: The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. From Amazon, here’s a synopsis:

Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator in London, lives in comfortable familiarity with husband-in-everything-but-marriage-certificate Lawrence Trainer, and every summer the two have dinner with their friend, the professional snooker player Ramsey Acton, to celebrate Ramsey’s birthday. One year, following Ramsey’s divorce and while terrorism specialist "think tank wonk" Lawrence is in Sarajevo on business, Irina and Ramsey have dinner, and after cocktails and a spot of hash, Irina is tempted to kiss Ramsey. From this near-smooch, Shriver leads readers on a two-pronged narrative: one consisting of what Irina imagines would have happened if she had given in to temptation, the other showing Irina staying with Lawrence while fantasizing about Ramsey. With Jamesian patience, Shriver explores snooker tournaments and terrorism conferences, passionate lovemaking and passionless sex, and teases out her themes of ambition, self-recrimination and longing.

Reviews of this book have been very positive. In fact, Entertainment Weekly named The Post-Birthday World its top fiction pick of 2007. It said:

Chapter by chapter, these two richly imagined scenarios play themselves out, eventually meeting up again some 500 pages later. Which was the better choice for Irina — the steamy lover Ramsey or the steady companion Lawrence? Shriver playfully suggests answers, only to snatch them back again.

Before it was co-opted and trivialized by chick lit, romantic love was a subject that writers from Flaubert to Tolstoy deemed worthy of artistic and moral scrutiny. This is the tradition into which Shriver’s novel fits. In 50 years, we’ll still be wild about Harry. And a lucky handful of readers may stumble across The Post-Birthday World and wonder why they’ve never heard of it.

Kristen of Delightfully Dawgmatic blog posted here on EDIWTB that The Post-Birthday World was the best book she read in 2007.

You can browse the first few pages of the book here at its Harper Perennial webpage.

And now for the good news: Harper Perennial has agreed to send review copies to readers of this blog who want to read The Post-Birthday World and participate in the second EDIWTB online book club. (Thank you Harper Perennial!).

So, if you’re interested in reading this book and then joining an online discussion in about a month, send me your mailing address ASAP at gweiswasser@gmail.com. Harper Collins will send the books out around the end of this week, and we will have a discussion here at this site on Thursday, March 6.

Please join in! I look forward to discussing the book next month. And thanks again to Jennifer at Harper Perennial for helping facilitate the book club.

Added on March 10: The online book club is taking place today at http://www.everydayiwritethebookblog.com///2008/03/the-post-birthd.html.