It's a little-known fact that Lionel Shriver went through ten alternate titles before she came up with We Need to Talk About Kevin. Here are the rejects:
Okay, we made that up.
So we need to talk about the real title of the book. Well, it's pretty self-explanatory, yet Eva sure takes her sweet time talking about Kevin, doesn't she? And she and her husband never actually talk about Kevin. No one says the title of the book in the book itself. Every time Eva tries to talk about Kevin with her husband, he shuts her down.
That's why Eva writes these letters. Each one is, in its own way, about Kevin. Eva thinks, "What we talk about is what we think about, is what our lives are about" (2.100). And ever since her son killed his classmates, all she talks about and thinks about is Kevin. Her life is about Kevin.
But for the first couple of years after the murder, Eva doesn't talk to Kevin about himself. They make silly small talk in jail, which we kind of understand, since, well, committing a mass murder is a hard subject to address. So, eventually, Eva decides to be blunt and ask Kevin point-blank why he did it. Even Kevin isn't sure.
So what does talking about Kevin accomplish? Well, the book gets everyone talking about its themes, and that's probably the point: what Shriver seems to want is to start a national conversation about what's going on with kids like Kevin.
After twenty-eight letters, Eva doesn't seem any closer to figuring out her son than she was when he was born. But she has decided to accept him, for better or for worse.
Okay, there is no better. It's all for worse.
Even though we know Kevin's crime from the beginning (or from reading the back of the book), we don't know right away how he did it, and Eva lays out every gruesome detail so that she—and we—can be aghast at how terrible the crime is. We're not sure what is more shocking, the violence of the crime, or the diabolically perfect way Kevin carried it out.
One thing Eva finally does that she hasn't been able to do in the years after Kevin's crime is to ask him flat-out why he did it. He thought he knew. "Now I'm not so sure," he says (28.52).
Eva seems to have given up trying to find any answers… because there aren't any. As a result, she says she is "too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness, I love my son" (28.73). Both she and Kevin are insanely stubborn, and both seem to have given in, just a little bit.
It's not a happy ending, but what other ending can there be?
The novel is set specifically in New York State, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is the social and political climate of the entire United States during the two time periods of the book: the past setting of the mid- to late-1990s when Kevin commits his crime (April 8, 1999 to be exact) and the 2001 Bush/Gore election of the present timeline, when Eva is dealing with the consequences. The book isn't just about New York or Eva's home; it's about America itself.
As much as Eva dislikes aspects of the United States, she's always considered it a safe place. That changes in the mid-1990s, when a rash of school shootings happen, for example in Pearl, Mississippi and Columbine, Colorado. This time in U.S. history was characterized by confusion and fear. Schools tried to crack down on students labeled as outcasts, students were strip-searched, rights were violated, gun control was discussed. The kids who committed these crimes blamed their experience of being bullied, they blamed their parents, or they blamed society itself.
But Eva has one big issue: "One of the things I can't stand about this country is lack of accountability" (26.8). Okay, but who is accountable when you have no idea who's to blame?
Kevin wants to take full accountability for his crime, which should be admirable in his mother's eyes. He even uses a freakin' crossbow instead of a gun to keep the gun control debate out of it. But that doesn't make the situation any simpler.
The political climate of the United States in 2001 eerily mimics Eva and Franklin's marriage. During the Bush/Gore election, the country reached a stalemate. No one knew who the president would be, and neither side wanted to compromise. Sound familiar?
This isn't the America Franklin believed in, or even the America Eva thought it was. As we've said, she always thought America was a safe place—until Kevin destroyed her illusions. As much as Eva disliked Kevin, she never thought he would commit the crime that he did. It just couldn't happen right at home like that: "This was America," she thought. "And you had done everything right. Ergo, this could not be happening" (27.166).
But it does happen, and it happens to her. Eva "always regarded the United States as a place to leave" (4.9). Now she's trapped there.
A child needs your love most when he deserves it least.
Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) was a newspaper columnist and humorist who published books with titles like If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? (1978) and A Marriage Made in Heaven ... or Too Tired For an Affair (1993). What is a quote from this woman doing in this book?
Well, there is a bit of sincerity to the quote's purpose here. The quote applies to all stages of Kevin's life. Eva never seems to love him, perhaps partly because he never shows her he deserves it. At the end, she seems to start loving her son, even though he still remains remorseless after committing a mass murder. If there is anyone less deserving of love, we don't know who it is.
But the quote from Erma Bombeck, a woman no hipster will ever quote, is also a bit tongue-in-cheek. This is the kind of blanket parenting advice that Eva would roll her eyes at, even if maybe she should be taking the advice at face value. But really, what on earth could Erma Bombeck say about a kid like Kevin that wouldn't be ridiculous? Including the quote as the epigraph shows us some of the book's humor, which is so dark it can be hard to see sometimes.
Eva Khatchadourian likes to use words that have as many, or more, syllables than her own very long last name. You might find yourself looking up the definitions of some words early on, like trifling (unimportant) or codswallop (nonsense). Eva uses so many pretentious vocabulary words, you might be tempted to dismiss the entire book as trifling codswallop.
Eva's vocabulary is pretentious, but it's a defense mechanism intended to keep people at bay. If you persevere, you can crack her chilly exterior and get to know the real Eva. Although that might be even more disturbing.
That brings us to the book's subject matter, which is even more difficult than its vocabulary. The real Eva is bluntly honest about post-partum depression, juvenile sexuality, and generally hating her son. Eva talks about the things that no one else talks about, so she might make you uncomfortable. But sometimes, it's those things that need to be talked about most.
"The look, the feel, the sound, so real. Entertech." In the 1980s, toy company LJN found itself in hot water from parents because of their realistic line of squirt guns. We don't know what brand of squirt gun Kevin gets, but it doesn't matter. Whatever the gun looks like, Kevin wreaks havoc with it.
Eva and Franklin give Kevin the squirt gun when he's four, shortly before they move. Kevin uses the gun to squirt the movers and say they peed their pants. When Eva takes it away, Franklin sides with Kevin and shoots Eva in the face with the gun. This might be the moment when Kevin learns how easy it is to turn his parents against each other.
After Kevin squirts Eva's maps with red ink, she stomps on the gun and destroys it. In retrospect, Eva thinks Kevin probably appreciated that she did this. "Since he had become attached to it, he was glad to see it go." Kevin is a person who wants to cut all ties, even to inanimate objects.
The gun is brought up during Eva's civil trial, but no one makes too much of a big deal out of it, for a change. When a school shooting happens, someone is always looking to place blame. The mother. Video games. Violent music. Squirt guns. No one in this book tries to sue a squirt gun company, and Eva knows it isn't the squirt gun's "fault" that Kevin ended up the way he did. It wasn't the gun that was a warning sign; it was the malicious way Kevin used it.
The picture of Eva is a mystery for many reasons. It's a picture she kept on a table of her in her late-twenties along with a man she had a brief relationship with. When Kevin is a child, the picture disappears, and Eva imagines Kevin took it to destroy it. But he didn't. The picture resurfaces after Eva has forgotten it—taped over Kevin's bed in prison. Eva sees it in the documentary, strategically placed for the camera.
This raises so many questions. 1) Why would Eva and Franklin keep a picture of Eva with another man on display? 2) Why did Kevin take it? Did he know that ten years later he'd be in prison and want it? And 3) Why does Kevin tape it to his wall? Does he actually miss Eva? Or is this a ploy for the documentary saying, Look, I miss my mother. And if it is a ploy, who is Kevin trying to manipulate: the public, Eva, or everyone?
We wouldn't be surprised if Eva were licking a Tootsie Roll pop in the picture: like trying to figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center, the world may never know what is going on with this little photograph.
When Kevin is sick, Eva reads him Robin Hood and His Merry Men. And Kevin likes it. He really likes it. Eva has no idea why Kevin likes it—but the book sure serves as a grim foreshadowing of Kevin's archery talents. "Kevin Khatchadourian could put an arrow through an apple—or an ear—from fifty meters" (27.3). And he uses his sharpshooting skills to, you know, kill his classmates.
But is there a deeper connection between Kevin and this book? Does he somehow identify with Robin Hood? It isn't like Kevin is a person who is stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But what if we don't think about money, exactly? Kevin does feel like an outsider. Is he taking something from other people and giving it to his mother? Like general human emotion, perhaps? Or, like Eva, are we just reading too much into it?
Whatever the reason, Eva keeps a copy of this on the bookshelf in her spare bedroom, the room Kevin will take when he gets out of jail. The book is both a comfort to Eva, this one thing she knows her son likes, and an olive branch to extend when he comes back into her life.
Only Kevin Khatchadourian would do something involving his sister and Liquid Plumr, causing her to permanently lose an eye. And only Kevin Khatchadourian would then kill his sister by pinning her to a tree with arrows, then take her fake eye from her dead body and keep it to taunt his mother. "It isn't often that when you look at an object, it looks back" (28.21), Eva tells us. Yikes. The eyes have it: this kid is evil.
But like every object in this book, the eyeball can continue to be analyzed. When Celia is having the eyeball made, Eva wants glass, but Franklin wants it to be a polymer. "I hate plastic" (24.19), Eva says. Considering Kevin calls Franklin "Mr. Plastic," this short sentence definitely has a double meaning.
We also get an early glimpse of how Kevin is using the eye incident to torment Eva. He knows Celia is her favorite, and Kevin will do anything to destroy a person's favorite thing. After Celia loses her eye, Kevin rubs it in by peeling and eating lychee berries in front of Eva. Yeah, for your next Halloween party, peel some of these, blindfold your friends, and tell them they're eyeballs.
Despite Kevin's cruelty—like when he shows Eva the eyeball while he's in jail (how did he get it into the jail in the first place?!)—when Eva tells him never to show it to her again, he doesn't. And when he's about to be transferred, he gives Eva the eyeball to bury. Once again, we have to wonder, is it a peace offering? Is Kevin truly sorry? Or is he just trying to get on his mother's good side because she's all he has left?
The first line of the book shows us that Eva is writing a letter: "Dear Franklin, I'm unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you" (1.1).
As the epistolary style develops, we slowly learn that Franklin is Eva's husband, that they are separated, and that they are separated because—spoiler alert—Franklin is dead. That's the permanent separation.
The narrative style allows Eva to examine details of her past and see if they illuminate anything about her present. When trying to find what went wrong, Eva has to sift through her entire life looking for little nuggets of wisdom. The letters do that, and they allow us to follow her on her mental journey.
Also, Eva is a writer. She may have written travel guides, not self-help books and psychological analyses, but she is still a writer. And the reason she wrote travel guides was because she "wrote the guide that I wished I'd been able to use myself" (3.32).
So whether or not Eva learns anything from her letters, maybe someone else will by reading them. Could have Eva done anything to stop Kevin? Probably not. But just as she wrote travel guides to prevent others from making the same mistakes she made, this book of her letters serves as a travel guide to parenting.