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January 27, 2012

“We Need To Talk About Kevin”

by Anne Paddock

We Need to Talk About Kevin” opens in movie theaters nationwide but there isn’t a movie theater within 50 miles of Hartford, Connecticut showing the film, and it’s not because the film is ‘bad.” In fact, the movie review site, Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an 81% and the nearly 10,000 reviewers that have already seen it (as there was a limited release on Jan 13, 2012) gave the movie an even higher rating – 86%. So, why isn’t the movie opening up in every movie theater across America?

The movie is an adaptation from a book of the same title written by Lionel Shriver in 2003. That the film took 9 years from the time the book was published to come to the big screen should tell you something about the difficulty of the subject matter: maternal love, child rearing, and murder.

We Need to Talk About Kevin” won the Orange Prize (a UK award) in 2005 and after reading the book, I was curious about the author and wondered who she was and if she had children. A native North Carolinian, Shriver has spent most of her life overseas with her most recent residence in London where she shares a home with her husband, a musician named Jeff Williams.  They have no children and I offer that piece of information because the primary theme of the book is motherhood and nature versus nurture.

The story is told from the perspective of Eva, a publisher of travel guides,  in a series of letters to her allegedly estranged husband, Franklin.  Eva and Franklin are the parents of two children, a teenage boy named Kevin and a young daughter named Celia. Early in the novel the reader learns that Kevin is in a juvenile detention facility because he murdered 9 people at his local high school in upstate New York, a few days before his 16th birthday. Thoughts of Columbine entered my head while I was reading this book because in cases where teens or children murder, we tend to lay blame on the parents. What did they do or not do to drive a child to do something so horrific? Did they not know their son was a sociopath?

No one is allowed to mess up the raising of a child without getting crucified by other parents, the media, and the general public.  Parents are expected to unconditionally love their children (and most parents will swear to their dying breath they love each of their kids the same but it’s not always the truth) because the outpouring of love ensures junior will turn out to be a law-abiding citizen, at least most of the time. And, even if a parent does favor one child over another, mom or dad probably does their best to hide their true feelings, lest they screw up the kid even more.  Eva knows this dark little secret and the truth haunts her. In her letters to Franklin, she looks back and wonders if she was to blame; were her shortcomings as a mother the reason Kevin went on a murderous rampage or was Kevin a terrible mistake of nature?

Eva was an ambivalent mother preferring to give her time and attention to her husband and her career. Franklin, a wash rag of a father who can see no wrong in his son blindly defends Kevin, driving a wedge between husband and wife. Eva finds herself resenting Kevin more and more….or, is she seeing him for what he is:  a manipulative, sadistic child who shows his true side to his mother but hides his evil tendencies from his father? Only when Eva desires more human connection, does she become pregnant and have a second child who is the polar opposite of her firstborn.

Several years ago, I read the book and found the story deeply disturbing; “Kevin,” as I came to call the book, was not a work of prose to love, or even like but instead a well written thriller whose words occupied space in my head for a long time. When I gave the book to friends, the reactions varied from outright condemnation of Eva to empathy for spawning a child that not even a mother could love. And, one friend read the book and immediately gave it back to me saying she had to get it out of her house. In conversations with another voracious reader who shares my love of books, I was reminded that often times a great book is not one that makes a reader smile because those are the books that are quickly forgotten. Instead,a great book is one that keeps the reader thinking long after the last page has been read.

A besotted mother of two sons once told me that having children is the most unselfish thing she ever did in her life.  I believe there is some truth to that statement but I also believe that when you very much want a child, the things you give up, the effort you put forth, and the love you give that child comes easily.  There is not a lot of thought put into something that comes naturally. But what about the parent that has an unwanted child or has a child for the wrong reasons (so someone will love them)? Or the parent who is verbally, mentally, or physically abusive and neglectful; in other words, the selfish parent? Eva didn’t want to have a child and would have been perfectly content spending her life with Franklin. Unfortunately, Kevin was born into a house of maternal ambivalence which didn’t help any character deficiencies already present.

Throughout the book, I found myself facilitating between condemnation and empathy. At first I thought Eva didn’t love her son enough (for doesn’t love conquer all?) but then thought Kevin was clearly a unloveable child, although believing any child is unloveable is a leap.Was Kevin’s character a by-product of nature or nurture or a combination of both? Clearly, Kevin was a disturbed child but Eva was also a distant, resentful mother so whose to blame? The answer has been hotly debated for years with no clear answer…and that’s the point of the story..the ambiguity of it all.

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