Study Guide

We Need to Talk About Kevin

By Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin Introduction

"We need to talk," isn't a phrase you want to hear from anyone, whether it's a parent, a partner, or your boss. The discussion that follows that phrase is almost guaranteed not to be easy. No one says this if you're getting a raise or going on a family vacation. No, you only hear these four words when your boss wants to demote you, or your best friend wants to admit he or she is on the campaign trail for Deez Nuts, or your spouse wants to tell you that your child just killed someone.

Whoa. After any of those—and especially the last one—you'll definitely need to talk. And probably to a therapist.

Lionel Shriver—and yes, that is her real name (or is it?)—published We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2003. It's the fictional story of Eva Khatchadourian, a woman whose son, Kevin, commits a terrible crime, and she is trying to come to terms with it… and decide where to place the blame for her son's action.

A book about school violence set in a time when school shootings were rampant across the United States pretty much has CONTROVERSY stamped on the cover in big red letters. On top of that, Shriver finished the novel after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, a time when the last thing anyone wanted to read about was school shootings. Her agent didn't think anyone would want to read about the horrible things Kevin does; worse, there was fear that the book would even inspire copycat killings (source).

This pushback made Shriver want to get her story out there even more (and fire her agent). Eventually, she got the book published. Not only did she have a #1 bestseller to flaunt in that agent's face, but the book also won the 2005 Orange Prize for fiction. Now known as the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, the prize was founded to celebrate women's voices in fiction. And Eva Khatchadourian's is one of the strongest.

The protagonist of the story is so strong (and polarizing) that she could really only be played by actress Tilda Swinton in the 2011 film adaption of We Need to Talk about Kevin. Also starring Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) as the sadistic teen Kevin, and John C. Reilley (Chicago) as Eva's pushover of a husband, Franklin, the film was a hit at Cannes and nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or prize. The film kept the conversation about Kevin going many years after the book's release.

Eva didn't talk about Kevin before the incident that changed their lives, and there's no way for her to change what happened, but maybe by talking about Kevin after the fact, she can prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. Read about Kevin yourself, and see what you think.

What is We Need to Talk About Kevin About and Why Should I Care?

Dear Shmoopers,

Hey. How's it going? We need to talk. So, um, we don't know how to say this, so we're just going to come out and say it: We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough read. But you shouldn't put the book down. Why? Because, sadly, the book is still relevant today. Scary mass shootings happen way more often than we'd like them to, considering we'd like them to never happen.

These are just a few of the shootings that have taken place after the publication of Kevin: the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007; the Northern Illinois University shooting on February 14, 2008; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012; and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting on July 20, 2012. In fact, 2015 had the most mass shootings in American history. Why do these keep happening?

There is no easy answer, and We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't try to provide one. It acknowledges that there may be no answer, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it. Silence is the worst thing we can do in this sort of situation, and talking about it may save a life.

But perhaps the most controversial thing We Need to Talk About Kevin attempts to get readers to do is to empathize with a killer. Not condone or excuse what that person did, or feel sorry for him after the terrible crimes he committed, but to try to understand why he did it. Only by understanding the killer can we help that person—and hopefully prevent crimes like this from happening again.

So keep an open mind with We Need to Talk About Kevin. And don't just read it: talk about it, too.

Forever your favorite website,
Shmoop

We Need to Talk About Kevin Resources

Websites

(Word) Pressing Issues
Fans want to talk about Kevin.

We Need to Talk About Short-Term Loans
Someone must have let the domain lapse, because the UK website is about loans and debt. A serious problem, yes, but a little off-topic.

Movie or TV Productions

Freddy. Jason. Kevin.
A. O. Scott describes the film adaptation as less of a psychological exploration and more of a horror movie.

Ebert Needs to Talk About Kevin
And he says he loves it.

Articles and Interviews

Negative Vibes, Positive Review
Scott Tobias liked the book in 2003, calling it "masterful." What do you think about his review?

Talking about Kevin
Sarah A. Smith called the novel "misguided" in her review. Do you think she is misguided herself, or right on track?

Apocalyptic Adolescence
Shriver discusses the process of adapting her book into a movie. It was stressful, but it wasn't the end of the world.

Video

Coming Attraction
Don't watch this noisy trailer if you have a headache... or are ever thinking about having children.

Tilda Talks
The star of Kevin talks about Eva's character and her need for control, among other things.

Audio

Good Morning, Baltimore
John Waters lists We Need to Talk About Kevin as one of his favorite books. (Waters talks about Kevin around the 25:00 mark.)

In Context
The scene from the movie discussed by Neal Conan of NPR here is ripped straight from the pages of this book.

Images

Translating the Terror
The Portuguese translation of Kevin has a cover so scary, we would be afraid to read it.

Bull's Eye
This fan-made movie poster might be even creepier.