Sunday, April 03, 2011

Book 23: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I've kept in touch with a few of my college professors, and generally see them when I'm back home to visit my parents.  Recently, one of them recommended this novel to me, and I finally had time to read it.  The novel is written in the epistolary format, and is compromised of letters from Eva to her former husband, Franklin.  Kevin is their son who is currently in a juvenile detention facility because he was "one of those Columbine boys."  Only a few days before Columbine occurred, Kevin shot and killed several students and a teacher at his high school.  Eva uses this correspondence to tell her side of the story, and attempt to understand her culpability, if any.  As a result, while the novel is a series of letters, the level of honesty and detail also make it seem very journal-like.
As the novel progresses, Eva reminisces about her and Franklin's early years together, and their very different backgrounds.  Eva is a jaded and cynical world traveler of Armenian heritage - her parents both lost family to the genocide in the 1910s.  Franklin, on the other hand, has traveled, but loves the United States of America in all its glories.  They have very opposite views, and didn't meet until their 30s, and as a result, become parents at a later age than many.  Eva describes herself as very happy with Franklin, but eventually decides to have a child because she feels like Franklin wants one.  Eva, on the other hand, is very ambivalent.  She earns more than Franklin and developed her own company of travel guides but is willing to embark on this new journey.  However, from the very beginning, motherhood disappoints her: as soon as Kevin is born, he rejects her breast and milk, and she never develops that maternal bond she hoped to.  The interplay between Eva and Kevin, and its affect on her marriage, was fascinating.  Eva believes that from early on, she and her son were engaged in a type of warfare with each other, and says that even as a child he would have a different personality when he was around her husband.  Based on only this, it would be easy to say it was simply post-partum depression, and that maybe he was reacting to her based on her behavior, but it is obvious that Kevin is a difficult child: no one wants to babysit him more than once, he drives off nannies, children's play groups become much more disruptive after he joins them.  Odd incidents occur when Kevin is around, and while Franklin is afraid he might be traumatized by them, Eva feels he caused them.  Obviously, knowing that he would later kill seven students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher, it is easy to want to side with Eva and just see something cunning about Kevin from the beginning.
While it is easy to describe this novel as a study about nature vs. nuture (was Kevin the way he was because his mother didn't like him, or was it in his nature from the beginning?), personally, I think this debate is not quite the point of the novel.  Even if Eva is a horrible mother, and mostly her sin is that she didn't want to be a mother, and that she is very cold, he had what could only be called a loving father, which is more than some children have and they don't shoot up their high schools.  Instead, the part that interested me was the idea of Eva as a narrator.  How reliable is she?  Everything the reader sees is her interpretation of events, with the occasional comments during which she describes Franklin's interpretations.  But really, even those are her interpretations of his interpretations.  After all, I doubt any father would be quite as amused and excusing of some of Kevin's antics as Eva describes him.  Clearly, Eva blames Kevin for the disintegration of her marriage, and there are various examples of Franklin picking Kevin over Eva.  I would have loved to get this novel from Franklin's perspective.
I was interested in the novel from the beginning but it took me longer to get through the first hundred pages or so than the last three hundred.  The first hundred are mostly set up and background, and it is only then that Eva really starts delving into Kevin's development.  However, while Franklin always takes Kevin's side, Eva still believes that her son had more respect for her exactly because she saw through him.  In fact, during one of her regular visits to Kevin's prison, Kevin tells her that she was the audience.  Eva and Kevin are the only characters in the novel that are truly portrayed with any types of dimensions.  While Eva loves her husband, it is hard to tell what the attraction was at times, and she has glamorized and simplified him as a very optimistic man's man.  Celia, her much younger daughter, is incredibly sweet, and the exact opposite of Kevin.  It gives the impression that Eva creates strong opinions of people at the very beginning and then pidgeonholes them, so no matter what they do, she interprets it to fit into her world view.  For example, at one point she talks about how Celia is absentminded, and would forget to set the table or do other chores as a result.  Yet if it had been Kevin, it would have been described as malicious and another battle.  I looked through a few Amazon reviews, and what I found interesting is that most of the reviewers focus on the idea of the novel as a character study of Kevin, but it is just as much as character study of Eva.

No comments: