Extended Summary

Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin features a ripped-from-the-headlines plot about a school shooter, but it is much more a story about the dark side of motherhood. The novel is presented in a series of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin, whom the reader realizes at the end of the novel is actually dead. In these letters Eva attempts to come to grips with the school shooting committed by their son Kevin by describing her and Franklin’s early years together, Kevin’s birth and childhood, and the events that led up to Kevin’s shooting spree.

At the time Eva is writing these letters, she is living alone and without much money. Her successful travel book business collapsed under the weight of multiple law suits stemming from Kevin’s crime, which Eva refers to simply as Thursday. She now works at a travel agency and lives near the juvenile prison where Kevin is housed. Her visits to see Kevin are filled with awkward silences and unloving stares.

Eva recalls that the decision to have children was not easy. She was thirty-seven at the time. Eva and Franklin are touched by their friends who have children, but in different ways: Eva is wistful at how much the parents have changed, while Franklin is enthusiastic and good-natured around the children. Eva and Franklin go back and forth about whether to conceive. Although Eva is skeptical, they agree on the principal reason for having a child. It will give them “something to talk about,” a new challenge in their lives. One evening, after Franklin comes home much later than usual after one of his photo-scouting trips (he works for an ad agency), and Eva becomes terribly distraught over not knowing where he husband is, she decides to have sex without her diaphragm.

Eventually Eva becomes pregnant, but as she puts it, she feels “strangely cold.” She is not so much excited as fearful. Eva doesn’t like being pregnant; she hates the way people stare at her. Eva and Franklin argue over the child’s last name. Eva, who hasn’t taken Franklin’s surname of Plaskett, wants the child to have her last name as a testament to her Armenian heritage. They compromise by saying that if the child is a girl, she’ll take Franklin’s name and if a boy he’ll take Eva’s. When Kevin is born, Eva admits to feeling “absent.” The infant Kevin refuses to suckle his mother. But Franklin is clearly ecstatic about being a father.

The mutual disinterest between Eva and Kevin continues through his infancy. Alone at home all day with Kevin, Eva tries to bond with her child but cannot. Kevin seems to shriek with hatred when they are alone but settles into periods of tranquility when Franklin gets home. They hire a nanny, an Irish-American woman named Siobhan, so Eva can go back to work. But Siobhan is bothered by Kevin, and she finally quits. “I don’t think Kevin likes me,” Siobhan says, referring to his tendencies to shriek and throw his food and toys. She also notes that it’s unusual that Kevin hasn’t started talking yet. One afternoon Kevin finally speaks for the very best time, saying “I don like that,” after Eva turns on cartoons.

Although Eva doesn’t want to, she and Franklin agree to leave their Tribeca apartment and move to the suburbs of Connecticut. Kevin continues to be difficult, to say the least: preferring only the saltiest of foods, repeating everything his parents say in mocking nonsense syllables, and perhaps most troubling, refusing to be potty trained. Upon moving into their new house, which Franklin has picked out and about which she feels less than enthusiastic, Eva papers over her office with old maps. Eva feels charm and pride in her decorating skills. Kevin calls the map-wallpaper “dumb.” Eva takes a phone call and when she returns, Kevin has taken a marker to the entire room, scribbling red and blank ink over Eva’s handiwork.

Kevin continues to wear a diaper even after he enters kindergarten. His teacher refuses to change him, so Eva must make twice-daily trips to the school to change his diaper. While Eva takes Kevin’s behavior at school to be menacing and unsocial, Franklin believes it to be simply the harmless actions of a boy, such as destroying the rare tea sea a classmate brings to show-and-tell. One afternoon at home, after she has already changed Kevin twice, Kevin is practicing his writing and writes that everyone at kindergarten thinks Eva “looks rilly old.” Smelling yet another “telltale waft,” and furious by what Kevin has written, Eva throws the five-year-old across the room. Later, as Kevin emerges from the emergency room, Eva learns that his arm is broken and that he has lied about what caused the break. Kevin concocts a story about falling off of his changing table. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Kevin starts using the toilet that very night.

After Kevin is accused by a neighbor of tampering with his son’s bicycle in order to cause a crash, another incident in which Eva sees malice but Franklin innocence, Eva declares that she wants to have another child. But Franklin refuses, “What could possess you, after it’s gone the way it’s gone, to do it again?” But, without Franklin’s knowledge, Eva starts leaving her diaphram in her bedside drawer when they have sex. She becomes pregnant and bears a sweet, loving girl she names Cecilia. Apparently not very smart and incredibly fearful, Cecilia becomes the child Eva always wanted. Ceclia is also blindly trusting of her older brother, which unnerves Eva.

Kevin continues to be a cold, careless child, acting bluntly cruel to his mother and mockingly enthusiastic to Franklin. Only once is Eva allowed to bestow any motherly affection,...

(The entire section is 2350 words.)