Tag Archives: we need to talk about kevin

Parent’s Worst Nightmare Books

I just started a new book (The Good Father by Noah Hawley), and as I’ve been reading it, I keep thinking, “Wow, this is every parent’s worst nightmare.” This is a common theme among a lot of memorable books I’ve read. Whether it’s kids disappearing, committing violent acts, becoming addicted to drugs, or losing themselves in sex or other destructive behavior, these plots have cropped up again and again in my reading.

Here are the ones that come to mind:

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver – this is by far the pinnacle of Parent’s Worst Nightmare books, for lots of reasons. I probably think about this book once a day. (difficult son is school shooter)
  • Cost by Roxana Robinson (son addicted to heroin)
  • A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein and Trespass by Valerie Martin (sons get involved with “undesirable” women, often with destructive consequences for parents and their relationship)
  • Breaking Her Fall by Stephen Goodwin (daughter performs sex acts at high school party; father goes ballistic)
  • Goldengrove by Francine Prose (daughter drowns)
  • I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (daughter abducted)
  • Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, The Local News by Miriam Gershow, and The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond (disappearing kids)

These books are so disturbing that sometimes I wonder why I read them. They bring on all kinds of fears and anxiety. But they are also intense and deeply involving reads, which is of course why we read in the first place, right?

What are your Parent’s Worst Nightmare picks?

Lionel Shriver on the Movie Version of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

When it comes to books being made into movies, I always have an opinion. And the more I like the book, the stronger the opinion. Sometimes I worry that I liked a book so much that the movie will never compare… such as with The Namesake (loved the book, liked the movie almost as much), or with The Time Traveler’s Wife (loved the book, didn’t think the movie measured up, though it was a noble effort).

Sometimes I am reluctant to see the movie, either because the book was difficult to read (The Kite Runnertoo violent/disturbing) or because I just didn’t like the book much at all (Water for Elephants).

I’ve come across a movie adaptation that I am very scared to see for two reasons – 1) I loved the book and can’t imagine a movie doing it justice; and 2) it’s the most disturbing book I have ever read and I don’t know if I can sit through it, knowing what I know is going to happen. That book, of course, is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (reviewed here).

Lionel Shriver was recently interviewed by The Guardian about her own feelings about the movie adaptation of her bestseller. It’s a fascinating read – check it out here. I really enjoyed this article. (H/T to TLB for passing it along!)

Will you see “We Need to Talk About Kevin”?

Q&A With Lionel Shriver, Author of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

Last week, the online book club for We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, took place on EDIWTB. Lionel Shriver graciously agreed to answer questions about the book. Here are her responses, which I found to be very interesting:

Q: 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 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?
A: Well, yes, but with one caveat: the scene in which Franklin registers what his son is up to–that is, er, the boy is about to murder his own father and sister–does indeed portray Franklin as suddenly having to reorder his entire universe.  In Eva's imagination it is the very paralysis of this reconfiguration of reality that leads to his death.  But that's the caveat: "in Eva's imagination."  That scene takes place in her head; obviously, she was not present at the time.  It's up to you whether you believe it or not.
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?
A: No, I've never been criticized for that, nor do I think I should be.  Fiction writers avail themselves of realtiy–or the bits that suit them–all the time.  I did not, alas, concoct the idea of school shootings all on my lonesome.  I got it from the newspaper.  Moreover, thematically it was important to me to set the fictional incident within the context of a sadly long history of similar incidents, because I believe that as Eva notes "these are all copy-cat crimes."  School shooting is a fad.  These kids get the ideas from the news, just as I did.  So I thought it was important that the news play a part in the novel.
Q:  How long did it take to write the initial draft and did you try to keep in the mind of Eva while writing this book?
A: All told, the novel took a couple of years.  Obviously, that involved living in Eva's head a proportion of the time.  But I still read other people's books and remembered to buy brocolli.
Q: Frank was so passive which helps the telling of the story. Did you feel you couldn't tell the same story with a stronger father figure? 
A: Franklin probably seems more passive because Eva is telling the story, and also because he never writes back to her.  Sure I could have used a different character.  All the characters could have been different.  There's an element of the arbitrary in all fiction.  That said, I did deliberately solicit exasperation from my reader in relation to his apparent naivete.  Exasperation is a powerful emotion, and a participatory one.  
Q: Did you base any of Kevin's "wrongdoing" – the Liquid Plumr in Celia's eye, the exczema incident, etc. – on real life incidents?

A: No, I made all of them up.  A few simply derived from my own fears.  I've always been terrified of drain cleaner.  I read once about some young woman committing suicide by drinking the stuff, and the story stayed with me.  I couldn't think of a more horrible way to die.
Q: I read in the extra materials in the back of the book that your editor suggested that you allude to rather than actually include the massacre scene at the school. What did he/she have to say about the scene in the backyard?
A: It wasn't my editor but my ex-agent.  Who is an idiot.  She hated the whole book really, so I suppose she hated the scene in the backyard, too.
Q: One reviewer piqued my interest when she wondered if there was any significance to the names of the characters. If so, would you let me in on that? 
A: Mmm, I always think hard about the names especially of main characters.  I wanted Eva to be Armenian, which meant her surname had to end in "ian."  I found Katchadourian in the phone book, and liked its musicality.  But to counter the heaviness and rarity of that surname, I wanted Kevin to have an ordinary Christian name, and I liked the alliteration of another K.  Since Franklin is fiercely patriotic, I liked using a name that alludes to a colonial hero, Benjamin Franklin.  And it's a little less common than Frank.  
Q: I am curious why this scene was put in the story – when Kevin is sick and then acts like a 'normal' child. What was this to show us – that he did love his mother? That the way he was was an act?
A: Kevin is one big act.  That scene helps to demonstrate that Kevin's coolness and inaccessibility takes a great deal of energy to generate.  When he's sick, he doesn't have the resources to keep acting so tough, needless, and aloof.
Q: Where did the foundation for Kevin's character come from? Why does he show no remorse?
A: Kevin was a patchwork job, taken from a host of kids I've met at one time or another, and wasn't based on any one person.  As for remorse, I think he does exhibit an inkling of if–most tangibly when he gives Celia's glass eye back, and then has the consideration to warn Eva not to open the box.  He's slowly turning into a human being.  Yet it's only dramatic for him to start to clue up to what an awful and utterly unnecessary thing he has done at the end of the novel if for the rest of the novel he's been refusing to show any regret.


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):


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.