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We Need To Talk About Kevin: We're STILL Talking About the Book

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Author: Lionel Shriver
434 pages

Film Opened December 9, 2011
Stars Tilda Swinton as Eva, John C. Reilly as Franklin and Ezra Miller as Kevin.

While the film opened two years ago, I still get a ton of hits on this post about the book as well as the film. I think that's because the material is so disturbing yet so compelling especially because - and unfortunately - the level of school violence here in the states shows no sign of abating. I've adjusted the font so the lengthy post is a bit easier on the eyes. Below the trailer you'll find my 'Reading Log' where I posted my thoughts as I initially read along. I do go on.

ABOUT THE BOOK: I thought Shriver's choice of telling the story through a series of letters to her husband was a very effective device. At the same time I was always just a little frustrated that her husband never responded! I assumed he was incredibly angry and sympathized. They say its difficult for a marriage to survive a death of a child...can you imagine any marriage surviving a child being a killer? This is a very emotionally difficult and challenging book about a teenager who kills a dozen people in a Columbine like massacre. The letters from the boy's mother to her husband trace their lives together including the birth and raising of this son, Ezra. It is in part an apology, in part an explanation, in part an admission that explanations, speculations, apologies are absolutely useless. 

MORE TO READ: We Need To Talk About This Movie “We Need to Talk About Kevin" 

Lynne Ramsay talks about Adapting We Need to Talk About Kevin

Despite the fact that Shriver is not a parent, she writes skillfully about what it's like to be one. She knows about our fears, that we're not perfect, that we'll screw everything up - including our children's lives. She knows too about our self-centered belief in our own inherent correctness. The feeling that the way I raise my kids is the only way to do it, anyone else's is a tad backwards. She also understands how hard it is for us to look at our children objectively.  And that to do so means loving CONDITIONALLY while we all know that parents, especially mothers, are supposed to love their children unconditionally.

In fact, when Eva looks at Kevin, objectively, she seems overly harsh and critical, selfish. It was hard for me to look at Kevin and Eva's relationship and not lay some of the blame at Eva's feet.

He is a difficult baby who turns into a manipulative horrible little boy who becomes a mass killer. Evil? Maybe. And yet one can't help but wonder if Eva's particular personality - selfish, critical, withholding, unloving - had something to do with that.

The fact that we don't hear from Kevin's father, Franklin, isn't that strange in context. Part of the problem has always been his denial of any problem and to the extent there was a problem, laying the blame at Eva's feet. Beyond that he maintained his head in the clouds, envisioning his world as he wanted it to be. Why bother with the facts, especially when they're so messy?

A thoroughly engaging book that alternately fascinated and repulsed me. There were times when I just had to put it down; I was so confused and troubled by my own emotions. A very unusual page turner; I think I whipped through those 434 pages in pretty good speed considering I had to take breaks!

If you haven't seen it, and can handle the emotional core I would recommend seeing the film.  I'm posting the UK trailer here. Tilda Swinton's performance is being touted as Oscar worthy - she is certainly perfect for the part. And while John C. Reilly has only Franklin's goofiness and not his handsomeness, he's such a brilliant actor that I'm comfortable he'll do the part justice. Ezra Miller's eye's speak for themselves.


November 3, 2011
As of today,  I'm about a quarter of the way through We Need to Talk About Kevin. It's coming out in theatres this coming January.

The book is written as a series of letters from Eva (pronounced Eevah) to her estranged husband Franklin.The letters take us back to their early days together, their much discussed decision to have a child, and their life with him. So far we don't hear back from Franklin at all so I don't know yet if we hear his side of things. In the film, Eva is played by Tilda Swinton, Franklin by John C. Reilly. I could tell from page one that Swinton's casting is perfection.

We learn fairly early on that their son, Kevin, is in prison for shooting and killing 7 classmates, a cafeteria worker and a teacher in a school massacre, just a few days before his 16th birthday. Pretty shocking. Completely compelling. Eva also talks about her visits to Kevin in prison.
The book is riveting. Eva was the very successful publisher of a series of low-budget travel guides. At this point in the book she works as a travel agent in a local firm close to the prison so she can visit every two weeks. The visits aren't pleasant, her son hates her and tells her so but she forces herself to go.

Looking back at their pre-Kevin lives together, it's clear that Eva, articulate, intelligent, demanding,  loves taking off on long expeditions abroad to check up the hostels, transportation and other destination details included in her Wing and a Prayer guidebooks. Franklin's job is as a location scout for commercials. While Eva seems to love everything foreign, she makes it clear that Franklin is Mr. America. She's pretty much a snob about it and argues that Franklin doesn't really love America, he loves the idea of America. And says time and again that she loves that about him.

She portrays a fair amount of initially good natured bickering about it but there's an illuminating conversation they have as she is getting ready to fly off to Madrid. They've just made love and Franklin questions how she can do it, how she can just get up and go. How she can just leave him. He never could. He says he knows that it's not that she loves him less, but that she loves him differently. The talk highlights what I see as Eva's selfishness and it's something she shows with some candor and embarassment throughout the letters.

As she and Franklin discuss having a child, she is all too aware of how much her life will change but because she does love Franklin so much, she wants to give him what he wants. And he wants a child.
When she gets pregnant, she guiltily regrets it immediately. She's pissed she can't drink wine and angry too that her free spirit lifestyle may have to change. But she stuffs her feelings so Franklin doesn't think poorly of her. That's where her inner turmoil begins and maybe? the trouble with Kevin starts.

After Kevin is born and proves difficult, Franklin can't see it. He thinks Kevin is just cranky and that Eva needs to give him more love and attention. Eva thinks that Franklin likes the idea of being a father, just like the idea of America, relishing the idea of tossing a ball back and forth with his son and Sunday barbecues, much more than the reality of Kevin, so much so that he is in denial as to just how tough Kevin is as a child. From day 1, Kevin rejects his mother's nipple, and screams in her arms. In Franklin's arms he quiets automatically.

That's where the trouble starts to skyrocket, with Eva's experience of her son, informed and maybe even shaped by, her selfishness. And her husband's denial. They finally hire an Irish nanny who finally leaves because she can't take it anymore. There is definitely something wrong with Kevin, he is NOT just a crankly baby!

I have to admit at this point I find myself alternating between casting blame at Eva's feet, questioning her mothering instincts and feeling sympathetic, assuring her it's not her fault her kid is a total psycho. The sixteen year old Kevin is played by Ezra Miller in the film and reading Eva's description of Kevin's eyes, and seeing Miller's eyes in the trailer tells me that casting is spot on too. Totally terrifying and creepy.

Anyway, I catch myself  wondering did she pick him up enough? When he wouldn't latch on, did her anger migrate to him telepathically. And then she'll recount some of his behaviors - throwing toys, throwing food,  and then I have to admit, could I have been a good mother to a hard baby? My own was practically perfect so what do I know of having my patience pushed to the last degree? And does not picking up a crying baby contribute to the odds of your child becoming a sociopath? I'm eager to see where this disturbing book goes from here and I'll keep you posted!

November 6, 2011    2nd Installment

Wow! I am really finding it hard to like Eva. Through her letters, Striver shows us a woman who is  extremely intelligent with a vocabulary to match. And she is articulate and brutally honest in her letters, even about her attitude toward Kevin. She's letting us peek through a microscope at her life with this strange child, and the close up view she gives us is chilling. We already know he's defective, evil, - his murdurous act proves that, right? - but even as she lists episode after episode of his irritating, annoying and deeply disturbing behavior as a small boy why is it I pull away from her and can't help blaming her just a little bit?  She knows her husband does, Striver must know that the reader does too.

She is aware that the whole world wants to know WHY Kevin did it, we want to know too.The subtext of course, is Is she to blame?  In a way the entire book is about the WHY of his act - and the extent of her role. Did she create this monster? Logically, we know she couldn't have. But the inner thoughts Striver chooses to show us, from the moment Eva  learned she was pregant and instantly wished she wasn't - even though she knows she shouldn't feel this way and wishes she didn't feel this way - keeping adding up in the column against her. The more she shows us how awful he is, like she is saying "there, there! did you see that?" while we do see, we still cluck and wonder if it could have been different. Did she have to be so critical, so severe, so withholding?

When their Irish nanny Siobahn leaves, Eva goes to Kevin's nursery where he is screaming in his crib and stands looking at him. She won't pick him up, she won't change him. No one is there to see if she does or doesn't and so she won't. She leans down and tells him --
"Siobahn thinks I should talk to you," I said archly over the din. "Who else is going to, since you drove her off? That's right, you screamed and puked her out the door. What's your problem, you little shit?  Proud of yourself for ruining Mummy's life?" I was careful to use the insipid falsetto experts commend. "You've got Daddy snowed but Mummy's got your number. You're a little shit aren't you?"
Ezra continues to scream and cry in her face, it hurts her ears. She goes on.

"Mummy was happy before widdle Kevin came awong, you know that don't you. And now Mummy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France. Mummy's life sucks now, doesn't Mummy's life suck? Do you know there are some days Mummy would rather be dead? Rather than listen to you screech for one more minute, there are some days Mummy would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge--"
I turned and blanched. I may never have seen quite that stony look on your face.
"They understand speech long before they learn to talk" you said, pushing past me to pick him up. "I don't understand how you can stand there and watch him cry"
"Franklin, ease up. I was only kidding around."

Kidding around? It's a chilling passage. But it's not just the words, not just the withholding. After all, it has been a terrible day and her child care, her sanity, has just walked out the door. Still, it's the "I was careful to use the insipid falsetto experts commend." that bothered me. She's careful to use the insipid falsetto. It's that judgemental, patronizing nature of hers that lies at the heart of the manner. She copies what she is told to do but without believing and investing in her heart and soul. And in this passage, she's not flying off the handle, out of control, driven to her wit's end. Even though I know how awful Kevin is - she's shown that time and again,- I can't help but think, she's awful too. Does she, did she ever, have any room in her heart for this kid? And really, who calls their child a little shit?  Oh, he will prove time and again, that he is. The question is, did he have to be?

November 9, 2011   3rd Installment
Frankly, I’m finding We Need to Talk About Kevin a bit difficult. Not because Eva rarely states anything simply in easy, accessible language - she doesn’t - but that her acts, her inner thoughts are just so off-putting. As are Kevin’s - at least as we see him through her filtering system (see, that’s the kind of comment Eva would make, instead of just saying through her eyes). And Franklin does seem to be an enabler for the boy’s seemingly inherent badness. He simply refuses to see him as a problem child where Eva can’t seem to see him any other way. In fact he says to her “You always see the worst in him.” and she flashes back “And you always see the best”.

I just want to scream! Where are the parents here? Where are the people who should have been honest with each other and insisted on getting this kid - and themselves - some psychological help?!?
There is a very disturbing passage - as most of them are - where Eva, tired of changing Kevin’s diapers , which he is still wearing at the age of six, actually physically assaults her son. She has never told Franklin but in this letter she finally confesses. She wants him to understand. 

“This was the same afternoon that after I had insisted he write a sentence that was meaningful about his life and not one more tauntingly inert line about Sally (see what I mean?) he wrote in his exercise book-

'In kendrgarden evrybody says my mother looks rilly old.' I turned beet-red, and that was when I sniffed another tell-tale waft. After I’d changed him twice. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor and I lifted him to a stand by his waist, pulling his Pampers open to make sure. I lost it. “How do you do it?” I shouted. “You hardly eat anything. Where does it come from?”

A rush of heat rippled up through my body, and I barely noticed than Kevin was now dangling with his feet off the carpet. He seemed to weigh nothing, as if that tight, dense little body stocked with inexhaustible quantities of shit was packed instead with Styrofoam peanuts . There’s no other way to say this. I threw him halfway across the nursery. He landed with a dull clang against the edge of the stainless steel changing table. His head at a quizzical angle, as if he were finally interested in something, he slid, in seeming slow motion to the floor.”
 Eva ends that particular letter to her husband right there, signing it simply, as always. “Eva”I found it too upsetting to go on reading at that point - it’s impossible, as a mother, not to put myself in that scene and reading that passage again as I write it, I can’t help feeling sick to my stomach. But I did go on. Kevin’s arm is broken, she takes him to the doctor. He insists on going in to the doctor’s office alone (a very unlikely scenario by the way) and she is petrified that he will tell on her. He doesn’t. And he doesn’t tell Franklin either. For awhile she runs around trying to be a good mommy to him, foisting his favorite snacks on him, the stuff she‘d previously denied him, so clearly does he have her in his control. He starts toileting and bathing himself. (Well, that’s a no-brainer!) There are some incidents where we see again how bad he is. And then Eva gets the bright idea to get pregnant again. Franklin can’t quite believe it because of how badly this has all gone. She admits to playing innocent and pretending everything’s been just swell. He insists they should not have another child and so, naturally, she deliberately gets pregnant and keeps it from him until it’s too late. And this is where I’m stopped for now, a little terrified to see what happens when this baby is born. 

Anybody else reading the book? Troubling isn’t it? Not knowing clearly who to root for. Lionel Shrivers is a gifted writer tackling such a complex and emotionally difficult material. He definitely has an ability to get inside this woman’s head; many of us have reached our tether with our kids on really, really bad days. Have borne an inner rage. But we haven’t acted on that rage. And for God’s sake, and ours as well as our children, those really really bad days were very few and far between while in Eva’s world they seem relentless.

November 12, 2011    4th Installment

Eva has her baby and it’s a girl. The differences between Celia and Kevin are night and day, as are Eva‘s feelings toward them. While Kevin seems to want almost nothing - but resentfully so, as if what in this miserable world could there be to want, what could possibly satisfy, everything is so boring - Celia wants nothing and is happy with anything she’s given. Like a beaten dog, content with scraps.
 "Whenever I hugged her unbidden, (did she ever do that to Kevin? we've not been told so!) she returned my embrace with a thankful ferocity that implied unworthiness.
So it’s clear Celia is going to be a victim and Shriver gives us a couple of incidents that confirm Eva’s indictment of Kevin’s treatment of her. If she will be anybody’s victim - Franklin seems to disdain her weakness - we know she will be Kevin’s. And I am reading warily, worried about what he will do.
He dribbles water on her face while she’s in her mother’s arms still in the hospital. He lures his little sister up a tree and then saunters off to make a peanut butter sandwich leaving the girl stranded in terror. 

At another time, Eva finds her -

“curled up on her side, ankles tied together with knee socks, hands bound behind her back with her hair ribbon, mouth duct-taped shut, and my son nowhere in evidence, I could work out for myself what her whimpered explanation of “playing kidnapping” amounted to.”
We know but don’t see that he’s melted the head of her favorite plastic horse over the flame of the kitchen range, that he’s strapped her into her booster seat force feeding her some horrible concoction until she vomits, left a mass of bag worms (not sure what they are but icky insects, no doubt) in her backpack. 

Predictably Franklin’s response is that -
 “older siblings traditionally torment younger ones, and Kevin’s petty persecution remained within the range of the perfectly normal.” 
Well, that’s certainly true for me. I remember my brother wrapping me up in a heavy rug and rolling me down a flight of stairs and holding my younger sister upside down over the toilet! I don’t know if that kind of behavior is perfectly normal but it’s perfectly awful. Luckily my brother has grown up to be a very good man.

Celia, of course, never complains about any of this. And while it seems crystal clear she takes second place with Franklin, Eva's letters reveal that Crystal is now living with her father! I'm about 2/3rds of the way through the book but we still haven't been told exactly when and why Eva and Franklin separated.  It was before what Eva refers to as
Thursday, the day Kevin killed his 8 classmates and two adults but that's about all we know. And why Eva doesn't have Celia, who she so clearly dotes on, is a mystery as well... unless it is an outcome of the civil trial and she's proven to be an unfit mother? We'll see!

November 13, 2011  5th and FINAL installment 

I have finally finished the book. I find I both can’t, and don’t want to, iterate the  ending. Like many of you, when I love a book, I’m a wee bit sad when I finish. We want to live in its landscape forever. We Need to Talk About Kevin is not that book. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, so disturbing was its terrain. It was well written to be sure; Shriver crafted his characters with care and deep psychological understanding. If Eva’s letters became tiresome and difficult, if her retelling of the tale became tough to take, that’s not because of any shortfall on Shriver’s part but because the subject matter - a sixteen year old who murders his classmates and a couple of school employees - isn’t exactly a walk in the park. And, as I’ve said before, as a mother, a mother of a now 18 year old, reading how Eva characterizes her son from day one was both troubling and confusing. Good mom/bad seed? Bad mom/what did you expect? 

I will just say that the book’s ending did elicit emotions I wasn’t expecting and that I really want to see the movie. And this is one time when I think that film’s limitations - how do you put a 434page book into a one hour and 50 minute movie - may work in the material’s favor. I'll be able to watch the story from a safe distance, a few steps removed from the living through it, I get from a book. A psychological thriller, it may do away with the letter writing conceit altogether and I would think has to make Eva’s character less layered, which for once, will be a relief!