Book Club Choice #1: We Need To Talk About Kevin

// 5 October 2008

The first choice of the F-Word book club/reading group is Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’. This book was nominated by Aideen Johnston, who described it as being “Not only [is it] a very interesting critique on motherhood, it’s so well-written that everyone, feminist or not, should have the opportunity to read it. One of my favourite books of all time.”

It was also nominated by Milly, who described it as being “slightly creepy but fascinating, and deals with the aftermath of a school “shooting”. It’s written from the perspective of Kevin’s mother and basically deals with his entire childhood and his mother’s guilt -she can’t decide whether it’s nature or nurture or something entirely different that made him kill his enemies at school. It’s very interesting to read (even if it’s not used for book club, read it anyway, it’s unsettling but in a good way) and again looks at feminism- questions about working mothers, having children and even getting married are raised, which make it especially relevant to this site.”

Thanks to Aideen and Milly for nominating this book, and please do continue to nominate books for the reading group, you can do so here and please include with your nominations a paragraph on the book and why you think it should be chosen. If you have already nominated but your choice wasn’t picked this time, don’t assume it won’t be.

Please post any comments about ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ here.

Happy reading.

Comments From You

Charlotte // Posted 5 October 2008 at 8:28 am

Excellent choice of book! WNTTAK is one of my favourite novels, for a couple of reasons. I think it’s a brilliant piece of imagining. For someone who is childless, Shriver does an amazing job of imagining the incredibly mixed feelings one has as a parent. In this case, the emotions are extreme: the mother resents her child for not appearing to love her, for taking her livelihood away, for choosing his father over her – and yet she still keeps trying, even after he has killed, to heal their desperate relationship.

It also raises questions about nature and nurture, and whether people are born with their personalities already intact. However much the mother tried to shape or change her child, he remained intractable. And no matter how intractable he was, and despite the horror he perpetrated, she remained connected to him – even when she didn’t want to be, because of that powerful parental bond.

I think Shriver writes with searing honesty. She is not afraid of facing up to horror. Most of my book-club hated this book because the material was disturbing, but I think it addressed the mixed feelings many parents have about their children boldly and frankly. She also writes very well, and although the book is a series of letters – a style I don’t usually like – she evokes the mother’s voice, her anguish, her guilt and her feelings for her child superbly.

Looking forward to seeing what other people say!

stroppybird // Posted 5 October 2008 at 10:58 am

Just a quick thought re the discussion. There is a twist at the end and you might want to consider a spoiler alert for people who read the comments who haven’t read the book and who might want to. Knowing the twist would have spoilt the book for me.

Lynsey // Posted 6 October 2008 at 10:22 am

I have read this already; and whilst the subject matter was very interesting, I found it so clunkily written I had to give up halfway through. I’m sure others will enjoy it, but I just couldn’t see past it.

Jo // Posted 6 October 2008 at 4:18 pm

I love this book. Apart from being a great read, it does have a really interesting take on motherhood, and certainly doesn’t portray it in a rose-tinted light. It is an honest, little-heard perspective, and while I was reading it kept shouting ‘yes, yes!’ in my head as so many of her questions and sentiments mirrored my own.

Her following book is also good…but it seems like the author has not enjoyed the feminist label that ‘Kevin’ has apparently attached to her and she seems to go out of her way to sneer at feminism. However, I would recommend ‘Kevin’ to all (especially feminists and potential mothers!).

Juliet // Posted 6 October 2008 at 4:48 pm

I read this book a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, except I thought it a bit long winded at times and could have done with more editing. But on the whole it was really refreshing not to have motherhood portrayed as 100% wonderful and fulfilling – on the contrary!

I also read an interview with the author, and apparently the manuscript of this book got rejected by all the (female) editors at big mainstream publishers because they thought the largely female reading public wouldn’t like a book that didn’t portray motherhood as wonderful. I don’t know if that’s true.

Sabre // Posted 7 October 2008 at 3:10 pm

I read this book a few years ago and thought it was wonderful and enlightening. Until then I had mindlessly accepted the notion that all mothers love their children unconditionally and think they’re wonderful. This notion is so strong in our society – it seems the majority of people don’t want to believe that some a) some women don’t want children and b) if they have children they may not have that rosy maternal glow. Yet the mother in the book does have that ‘glow’ (my words) when she has her second child, so the book is not as obvious as it initially appears (i.e. that she just doesn’t want kids)

In a real-world context this book could be very useful, for those women who don’t want children or have doubts, and for those who suffer post-natal depression. The book is about more than that, but PND is far more common than people know, and PND mothers are often invisible. Again, nobody wants to let go of that magic maternal love myth, which makes it even more difficult for such mothers to seek help.

The book is very disturbing and dark, but I think any (prospective) parent should read it.

I’ve read some of the author’s other books and would totally agree with Jo that Lionel Shriver doesn’t seem to like feminists and doesn’t want to be lumped in with them. The most recent one I read was ‘The post-birthday world’ where she/the female lead character seems to be constantly apologising for any feminist views, yet conversely also the lack of them. It was actually really annoying.

Shea // Posted 8 October 2008 at 1:12 pm

I really enjoyed this, its a fairly bleak portrayal of motherhood, but it offers an alternative perspective and an insight into the nature/nuture debate. In many ways this is like a modern rehash of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the unspoken fear women have of producing a monster.

I think key in We need to talk, is the sheer social expectation on mothers, there is such enormous pressure to produce the perfect child, and where that doesn’t happen the mother takes the blame by default. Its such a denial of self autonomy. Its also interesting how it pans out in this story, almost from the beginning there is discordance between the mother and her son, but *spoiler alert* she is the one he eventually turns to, which is a curious testament to the pervading influence of mothers and the mother/son bond.

Another book I read recently and liked was “the Bride Stripped Bare” which is a depressing although perhaps fairly accurate portrayal of what marriage can be like.

Both of these books show the reality that can lie behind the happy ever after.

Ellie // Posted 8 October 2008 at 4:41 pm

Egads, I hate to be all negative but I thought it was awfully written, I honestly couldn’t get past more than the first few chapters. I just found it ridiculous that we’re supposed to believe that this is a letter a woman is writing to her husband about their son. I mean, who writes letters in that way, its so desperate to be self-aware and eloquent but Shriver just doesn’t pull it off for one second. I was very unconvinced by the writing.

Hazel // Posted 8 October 2008 at 8:28 pm

“I just found it ridiculous that we’re supposed to believe that this is a letter a woman is writing to her husband about their son.”

I think this is a fair point but I have only ever heard it made by people who haven’t finished the novel. I wonder if there are people who got past that barrier and read on and still thought it was ridiculous.

Sarah // Posted 9 October 2008 at 9:24 am

I agree, I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read/finished the book yet, but that seemingly ridiculous premise is not quite what you think it is. Though I can see why you’d get that impression if you only read the first few chapters.

There actually seems to be a huge divide between people who disliked the main character and found her irritating, and those who really empathised with her (I did), perhaps it depends on your own feelings/fears about motherhood. It’s also worth noting that she’s a classic example of the ‘unreliable narrator’, Shriver is not necessarily implying that everything she says and does is perfectly right and reasonable, or that her perspective on the situation is the only valid one. It’s the kind of book where it’s very much up to the reader who they sympathise with and where they lay the blame for the terrible things that happen.

Bee // Posted 9 October 2008 at 10:40 am

Am I the only person who is unconvinced by the “searing honesty” of a novel about maternal ambivalence which is written by a woman who doesn’t have or want children? I’m not saying that makes it a bad novel or one which shouldn’t have been written. But if it’s really saying something profound about motherhood, which some commenters seem to suggest, I’d find that more compelling if the author had actually experienced it.

Sarah // Posted 9 October 2008 at 3:58 pm

I think the novel intends to say something, profound or otherwise, about feeling afraid or unwilling or resentful or indifferent when it comes to motherhood, which the author quite possibly has experience of. And these are still difficult things to admit to, and there is still considerable social pressure to have children regardless of whether you want to. This novel, I think, was an exploration of the worst-case scenario that could result from this sort of pressure, a warning to some extent. Also a representation of the author’s fears and negative feelings about motherhood in general.

Cara // Posted 9 October 2008 at 4:06 pm

I enjoyed WNTTAK. I disagree with Bee and find the cliched idea that you can’t talk about children unless you have them very annoying. The whole point is that all women are assumed to want to have children, and motherhood is some kind of perfect holy light. WELL IT ISN’T and plenty of mothers have these ambivalent feelings or even just sometimes don’t like their kids when the kid is being a pain in the arse.

Was disappointed by The Post-Birthday World though. With Jo and Sabre – the way the main character kept sneering at “feminism” was very wearing.

Also the OMG could never have an abortion! zomg bit (she then miscarries, of course). Sigh.

The female lead in general seemed quite pathetic, defining herself solely in terms of the men in her life.

maggie // Posted 9 October 2008 at 4:32 pm

I read this book twice, once for pleasure and the second time for a book club. I found the narrators voice for the first 80 pages extremely irriatating and was even beginning to sympathise with the son and absent husband. However as the story unfolded I warmed greatly to her. I was astounded that Shriver had no children as her insight into parenthood was spot on. I knew of the ‘unreliable narrator’ but in the end I choose to trust her completely.

It’s not a book you can say ‘I enjoyed that’ due, I think, to the horrific content. The ending is a wonderful twist.

I would recommend it highly.

Bee // Posted 9 October 2008 at 7:47 pm

@ Cara, I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t talk about children unless you have them. Just that I questioned how she could be writing with “searing honesty” and profound insight about something she hasn’t experienced. The fact that she does this convincingly perhaps makes her a good writer, but it’s more a tribute to her imagination and skill than to her honesty, surely?

Lindsay // Posted 18 October 2008 at 10:29 am

“I just found it ridiculous that we’re supposed to believe that this is a letter a woman is writing to her husband about their son. I mean, who writes letters in that way”

I found the form of this novel the most interesting and poignant part. This woman never felt heard after bearing her child. Her husband – to whom she writes – never listened, never heard her. She was misunderstood throughout the book (and her life) by everyone, every member of her family, the legal system, the public and then ultimately, the reader. The way she writes her letters – including every detail – seems to be the only outlet she has for her truth. To read, this was just as uncomfortable for me as the horror of her son’s actions. Making this femist argument that women often feel trapped and unheard when what they’re saying challenges society’s ‘ideal’ may well have been a mistake for Shriver but the result is profound. And frustrating.

I think this book is brilliantly written on so many levels and uncomfortable reading is never a negative in my opinion. It inspires thought and debate.

Aideen Johnston // Posted 26 October 2008 at 11:39 pm

Yey my suggestion got chosen! I was super interested in reading this book not only because of good reviews from friends but also because as a feminist with a very strong maternal drive I have frequently argued for women’s right not to want children without actually understanding how it feels not to want children – I sometimes feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about. So in reading the book I was hoping for a bit of insight, and that is exactly what I got; I identified very strongly with the narrator. I feel that this may be some indication that a non-feminist reader who has never considered the idea that women don’t automatically want kids by virtue of being female may have this brought to their attention in a very effective way. Of course, that all depends on the reader in question interpreting the text in this way and I’m sure there are a few who will miss the point and argue that it is the protagonist’s fault Kevin turned out this way.

Re: Shriver’s style – I loved it, I thought it was very well written, and moreover her clarity of emotional expression may allow female readers who don’t feel understood or like they can express themselves well to sort of live vicariously through the protagonist.

Davina // Posted 29 October 2008 at 3:42 pm

This is one of those books that I keep coming back to. I reread it (for probably the fourth or fifth time since I bought it) only last week and so I’m glad to see it put forward by the F Word (and so many perceptive comments on it).

Although I found it hard to get used to Shriver’s style of writing, I enjoyed how the book was written in a series of letters which could also be taken as diary entries (it’s hard to comment on this book without spoilers!) – a much more revealing way of telling a story. I also liked the way Shriver explored not only the changing relationship between mother & son but also between girlfriend/wife/mother and boyfriend/husband/father. On the whole it’s a very intimately and intricately detailed story which leaves one with an awful lot of questions.

What with TV programmes such as ‘Supernanny’ and ‘Wife Swap’ etc. I feel there’s such a lot of judgement placed on parents, but especially mothers (because of course Supernanny can’t be a man…there’s no male equivalent of ‘nanny’ – and of course there’s no ‘Husband Swap’ because of course wives are the ones who bring up the children, men don’t have a clue! duh! in fact why don’t they just call it Mother Swap?), these days, that I am grateful Shriver left it pretty much to the reader to interpret the story on their own (as in I didn’t get any sense of ‘author intereference’ behind the protagonist). I don’t think it matters whether Shriver is a mother or not – the story stands for itself.

It’s a hard book to read but one I definitely recommend. I was not so enamoured with ‘Double Fault’, the only other Shriver I’ve read, as the tennis metaphors got a bit much for me. Also I prefer books which begin after the story has happened, so you get the whole present/past intertwining, which is another reason I liked WNTTAK.

Ella Davies // Posted 22 November 2008 at 2:21 pm

I’m glad I’ve found other people who can’t read this! I can usually read anything, but not this.

I found the book concept interesting – a mother who doesn’t want children, but chose to have them anyway. A child who grows up with said mother and kills people. But I couldn’t read it!

Why not? The mix of self-congratulation and self-flagellation in the letters coupled with the sickening pro-America sentiment. I’m not anti-America but the comments of “if I wasn’t American it’s the first place I’d just have to visit because it’s so wonderful!” and “Our only idea of invaders come from space”… excuse me, did anyone ask the natives how offensive that may be? Or just the progeny of the invaders believe this so much? And the “Franklin was the perfect American; he voted for Bush” – that was just SO wrong on so many levels! This is what made me feel ill, rather than the subject matter.

If the book had been about a quarter of the length I may have read it.

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