We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

19th Apr 2010

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Whilst reading We Need To Talk About Kevin two things will become evident:

1. Kevin really was a little shit.
2. Eva wholly and unapologetically disliked her son from birth.

And this will result in the following question: Was Kevin born evil or was his character moulded by Eva’s lack of maternal affection? It’s this question – with its roots in the age-old Nature vs Nurture debate – that makes the novel such a favourite at literary discussions. The book doesn’t decide who is at fault. No matter what camp you fall in Shriver’s thoughts on the matter are clear: “If I spent 400 pages refusing to answer that question, why would I answer it now?” Well, quite.

Though the overwhelming amount of debate is centred around parental culpability, Shriver’s portrayal of motherhood isn’t exactly rosy. I’ve never read a book portraying motherhood as this bloody tough. Shriver wrote in the Guardian that “We seem to be ready for novels in which parenthood is sometimes frustrating, painful and even boring.” That may be true, but it still seems shocking that for Eva (once CEO of her own company) being a parent is dull at best and tortuous at worst. It shouldn’t seem shocking but it is. Eva never wanted to be a mother and she spends a great deal of time lamenting the things she sacrificed (social life, hot body, freedom to jump on a plane on a whim, etc) in becoming a parent. Unsurprisingly this makes Eva, with her selfishness and startling honesty, a pretty difficult character to like.

And that’s another thing about Eva – you’re never quite sure if she’s exaggerating Kevin’s actions or not. Eva’s relationship with her son is a constant battle, starting from his refusal to breastfeed. Accusing a newborn baby of purposefully tormenting you probably isn’t normal behaviour. And it’s the unreliability of Eva’s account that further fuels discussion.

But opening up explosive debates doesn’t win you the Orange Prize for Fiction. What cements We Need To Talk About Kevin’s position as a modern classic is the writing. Shriver’s eloquent prose stops the novel from sounding like an (albeit fictional) misery memoir, and the heart-breaking twist towards the end of the book made my stomach flip. I’ve never had such a physical response to a work of fiction.

This book is made for discussion. So read it, get your friends to read it and be prepared to talk about Kevin. We Need To Talk About Kevin is published by Serpent’s Tail and is £9.99 from Amazon.

Post by Alex Sheppard


  • Ria says:

    I read We Need To Talk About Kevin a few years ago, and to be honest, I found it quite hard work. Whilst I very rarely give up on books, I was tempted to mainly because of Eva’s long, overly introspective monologues – am I the only one who found them gratuitous? I didn’t like Eva, and with her martyr-like lamenting over the life she could have had, it’s perhaps less surprising that Kevin turned out the way he did. Obviously it’s an extreme case, but I think Shriver did a good job of illustrating how much of an effect our parents’ attitudes have on our development.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks Ria! Although I think was a brave move on Shriver’s part to make such a central character so unlikeable, it does illustrate how much we rely on empathising with books’ protagonists to keep us reading! In this case I think it works because the story is so compelling, but in some of her other books I think she almost sabotages herself with those unlikeable characters. Have you read any of her other books?

    • Alexandra Sheppard says:

      The book would be so much easier to read if Eva was likeable – then as readers we could quite easily say that Kevin was just a ‘bad egg’. But Eva’s character is what kept me thinking about this book long after I put it down. And as Jane said, it’s a brave move to make your central character so utterly unlikeable.

  • Jess says:

    I read this book a few years ago and loved it. Lionel Shriver is now one of my favourite authors.

    I think even more than Eva’s relationship with Kevin, and even more than the whole controversial school massacre thing, Eva’s relationship with her husband manages to be the most interesting thing about this book. If you read more of Lionel Shriver’s books, it’ll become pretty clear that her number one strength is in writing relationships – she writes very honestly and is brilliant at capturing complexity.

    I agree with the above re: making the central character unlikeable. But I don’t think the character rides on the compelling storyline in spite of it, I think she makes the story more compelling because of it. Shriver is so brutal with her lead characters, they are all so flawed and human. I like that. Have you read Double Fault? Willy and Eric’s marriage is bloody agonising.

    It can go so horribly wrong though, this unlikeable protagonist lark! Have you read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb? Dolores Price, ugh. SUCH hard work.

  • Jess says:

    P.S. Love the new site, girls! Congrats xx

  • Ria says:

    This is the only Shriver book I’ve read. Whilst I’m glad I read it, and it did get me thinking, I’m not sure I enjoyed reading it. I’ve heard a lot about her new book though (So Much For That) – has anyone read it yet? It sounded interesting. I’d be open to reading more of her stuff if anyone’s got any tips.

  • Jess says:

    Definitely give Double Fault a go, and I also really loved The Post-Birthday World, which is a really interesting take on the alternate reality idea. Didn’t know about So Much For That – thanks for the heads up!

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for all the suggestions ladies, we’ll definitely be looking into those. For my sins, I hated Post-Birthday World, although I agree the alternate reality construct worked really well, but again just found the central characters so unlikeable! And I thought it was far longer than it needed to be – felt like such a slog towards the end! I’ll look into the other ones tho, promise.

  • Jess says:

    Oh, and Game Control was also great.

  • Alexandra Sheppard says:

    Loving the discussion ladies! Just wanted to add that the protagonist of my faovurite book ever (Lolita) is totally loathsome. He’s a paedophile, for goodness sake! But that hasn’t stopped me from really enjoying the book.

  • Jess says:

    love love love this book, great review.
    Bit of shameless self promotion, this is what I wrote about the books on the Leeds Book Club blog cheers x