On a Wing and a Prayer: 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'

Ezra Miller as Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Eva is by nature a dark realist. She tries to understand what drives her inscrutable child, and can only think he resents the very fact of being alive.

Publisher: HarperPerennial
Format: Paperback
Author: Lionel Shriver
Price: $14.99
Title: We Need to Talk About Kevin
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: 2011-12

Thirty-seven-year old Eva Khatchadourian has it all—a thriving business writing travel guides, money, a loft in New York City, and her husband, Franklin Plaskett. The couple live the free and easy life afforded by money and location until, as middle age creeps up, they begin to discuss whether or not to have a child.

To describe Eva as ambivalent understates the case. She is riddled with doubts. Franklin, her opposite in so many things, would love to have a child. Yet Eva remains dubious even as she allows herself to become pregnant, giving birth to Kevin, who lives up to and beyond her worst fears.

Lionel Shriver excels at nasty, acid-tongued characters—see Jude Hartford in The Post-Birthday World, or the teenaged Flicka in So Much for That. But We Need to Talk About Kevin, originally published in 2003, now reissued to coincide with the film starring Tilda Swinton, is a novel of another order. When Shriver’s agent read the manuscript, she telephoned Shriver to say she was unable to represent the book without substantial revisions to both Eva’s acerbic character and the novel’s more grisly bits. Shriver, not one to compromise, submitted the book directly to an editor. The book was an international bestseller and winner of the Orange Prize.

Shriver takes the idea of ambivalent motherhood to the furthest extreme. Every would-be parent, especially older would-be’s, worry about Down’s Syndrome and other hosts of potential complications that could arise in a pregnant woman over 35. Eva is no exception. In this epistolary novel (a word and act rapidly becoming archaic), Eva pours out her thoughts to her beloved Franklin, who we are to understand is no longer with her. His exact whereabouts are not disclosed until the book’s ending.

She writes of her selfishness, her lack of interest in motherhood, her fear of boredom. She admits to fears of varicose veins and gaining extra weight. She doesn’t want a handicapped child or the burden of care such a child entails. Yet she fears her misgivings are small and selfish. A first-generation Armenian, she feels a responsibility to repopulate her decimated people. And a baby will shake up their perfect life of late, wine-soaked dinners with friends and long investigative trips around Europe.

“Everything feels so sorted out, I lamented. ‘Wing and a Prayer’ (Eva’s travel guidebook company) has taken off... Money bores me and it’s starting to change the way we live in a way I’m not totally comfortable with.”

Bolstered by her friends, who assure her things are entirely different when the child is yours, that you fall magically, hopelessly in love at first sight, Eva capitulates. The moment she holds the infant Kevin in her arms, she realizes herself mistaken.

Even as a baby, something is very wrong with Kevin Khatchadourian. He refuses his mother’s milk and screams unremittingly. Never does he coo, smile, or laugh. He does not play: when left alone, encircled by the endless toys Franklin brings home, he simply sits, staring. Eva does not fall hopelessly in love with this floppy, howling stranger. Indeed, she can’t stand him.

As Kevin grows older, more alarming behaviors manifest. He refuses to be toilet trained until age six. He throws toys with the intent of harming others. He’s a late talker who dislikes cartoons and remains a fussy eater. When he finally does speak, it’s entirely in negatives, from the things he doesn’t like to those he finds stupid. Perhaps worst of all is his habit of mimicking his parents in a loud, numbing singsong. “Nyeh NYEE nyeh, nyeh-nyeeeh!” (Italics Shriver’s) Eva finds him unbearable. He is unbearable.

Kevin is four when the family moves. He entertains himself by shooting at the movers with a water gun, aiming for their genitals. When Eva bades him to stop, Franklin sides with Kevin, drenching Eva personally with the water gun. Franklin always sides with Kevin, good-naturedly refusing to see the increasingly alarming truth: their child is a sociopath. Friendless and sullen, his sole pleasure is carefully discerning what others love, then destroying it.

Yet Franklin sees none of his son’s failings. Franklin is Eva’s antithesis in numerous ways. Eva’s relationship to America, and by extension, the country’s inhabitants, is that of an outsider, the child of immigrants who grew up to create a career that took her far from the States. She is openly critical of her country and its inhabitants, a hypocritical trait Kevin will later excoriate her for.

Franklin, who has visited Europe exactly once, is a red-blooded American, fond of junk food and Republican politics, a man who takes the national anthem seriously at baseball games. Franklin would like nothing more than to marry, have a family, and live in a nice suburban home. Which he does, to Eva’s subdued dismay and Franklin’s happiness. Kevin needs a yard to play in, good schools to attend. The funky New York loft and possessions collected from Eva’s travels is jettisoned for a McMansion in Gladstone, New York, an upwardly mobile suburb.

Franklin’s willful blindness drives a wedge into the marriage. Eva is by nature a dark realist who cannot abide Franklin’s dismissal of Kevin’s behaviors. She does try to understand what drives her inscrutable child, and can only think he resents the very fact of being alive.

Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, Franklin remains a master of denial. Even as Kevin entices a fellow kindergartner to scratch her eczema until she’s bloody, smashes another child’s heirloom tea set, and requires adult-sized diapers, he insists they have a “happy, healthy boy”. Franklin turns instead on Eva, unable to face the imperfections in his vision of a perfect suburban family. The blame always lies with the mother.

And Eva rakes herself over the coals. Now, alone in a crummy rental, reduced to working in a travel agency, she revisits the past, scrutinizing her behaviors. She sees none of Franklin’s version of a “happy, healthy boy”. She feels Kevin, whose antics bring enraged parents and police to the door, has ruined her marriage and by extension, her life. She is not wrong, and Franklin’s sunny refusal to acknowledge the truth is maddening.

At age 44, despairing, Eva decides to have another child. The decision is an unpopular one in her family, but the birth of sweet, gentle Celia brings Eva all the maternal delights Kevin’s arrival did not. And despite Kevin’s horrific treatment of her, Celia adores her older brother, willingly submitting to his wishes, even when they literally leave her stranded in a tree.

Yet even this vindication of motherhood and its attendant joys is insufficient. Kevin has grown into a frightening teenager. Not a rebellious, getting-a-girl -pregnant kind of frightening, but a Jeffrey Dahmer kind of frightening. Atop this, Eva and Franklin’s years of conflict have eroded their once idyllic marriage.

Then Kevin begins preparing for Thursday.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver has outdone herself in creating a monster. I read the book when it came out, then re-read it for this review, finding myself even more horrified than on first read, perhaps because I knew the outcome. I give away nothing in telling you the teenaged Kevin kills several students and one teacher at his high school. Eva mentions this culminating incident throughout the book, though only at the end does Shriver give the details of what Eva calls that Thursday.

If Eva self-identifies as a sort of non-American, a well-traveled woman of Armenian descent disdainful of her fellow Americans, then Kevin is very much her child, looking upon the vast majority of Americans as sheep, watchers of television rather than actors in their own lives. He takes pride in his actions as decisive expressions of his disgust. That they are also decisive expressions of a sociopath doesn’t bother him a whit. Kevin’s malicious behaviors are thoughtfully planned out. He takes his time choosing his targets, assessing them carefully before taking action. He knows precisely why he does what he does. Remorse lays outside his emotional range.

From the falsely cheery persona he takes with the oblivious Franklin to the myriad tortures he invites upon others, Kevin is chilling. The book is laced with episodes of his insidious cruelty, from words whispered into a hapless teenaged girl’s ear to the permanent injuries inflicted upon his younger sister, Celia. Yet every other Saturday, Eva, who has lost her business, her house, and her marriage, doggedly visits Kevin at Claverack, the juvenile prison housing him until he turns 18, at which time he will be transferred to Sing Sing.

The visits are verbal jousting contests. Kevin is brilliant, and his relationship to his wary mother has always been confrontational. The two trade barbed sentences, Kevin ceaselessly probing for answers, Eva often rendered speechless.

Rereading this book, I marveled anew at the meticulousness of his plan, its elegant ingenuity. Then it struck me that the plan was not Kevin’s, but Shriver’s, a telling example of how engrossing this painful book is, and what a talented writer we have in Lionel Shriver. The denouement is devastating, perhaps read best on empty stomach.

The ending is surprising, but nothing about this brutally honest book is conventional, save the paper it’s printed on. The questions Shriver poses about motherhood and children are almost impossible to answer. Is Eva truly a bad mother, liable for Kevin’s actions? Are Seung-Hui Cho’s parents liable for his actions at Virginia Tech? After the Columbine massacre, several parents brought suit against Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s parents. It’s safe to assume the murderers’ families were as horrified as the victims. The fact that the Cho, Klebold, and Harris families also lost their sons is often forgotten or dismissed.

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