I recently read that book for the second time. I made a blog-post about it both times, so here they are.
Forgive my bluntness, I've developed a fever in the past few days and am feeling a bit mad.
I've recently read that book (by Lionel Shriver). About twenty pages in, one thing had already struck me.
See, the book's supposed to be about the mother of a mass murderer (the columbine kind) writing letters to her estranged husband about their son - basically, exploring how he came to turn out that way. The thing is, she doesn't write like most people. The language is too flowery. And since it's meant to be in first person, that takes away from some of the realism.
Still, it's a very interesting topic for a book. So far, though, I really prefer Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes.
After the floweriness of the first couple of pages, the book does get better. Personally, I wanted to know more about what happened afterwards, than about his birth. Although his mother's feelings about how he came to be are relevant, they're just not what I wanted to hear about.
About halfway through, you get a sense of Eva (the mother) being biased, and unreliable, which was quite effective. Normally, even in first person, I tend to take characters at their word. I also liked the little twists which were hinted at, and then gradually revealed - but a lot of the time, I was waiting for the reveal, rather than enjoying the journey. So, an interesting book. Perhaps not one that I'll read again.
The rest of this post is going to assume that you've read the novel too, and will discuss major spoilers. If you haven't, then look away now. If you don't think you will ever read it, I'm going to quote a blurb after this so you can make up your mind properly. If you're still with us after that, don't cry about being spoiled, k?
Nature or Nurture: What makes a monster?
Kevin Khatchadourian killed seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher, shortly before his sixteenth birthday. He is visited in prison by his mother, Eva, who narrates in a series of letters to her estranged husband Franklin the story of Kevin's upbringing.
A successful career woman, Eva is reluctant to forgo her independence and the life she shares with Franklin to become a mother. Once Kevin is born she experiences extreme alienation and dislike of Kevin as he grows up to become a spiteful and cruel child. When Kevin commits his murderous act, Eva fears that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become. But how much is she to blame?
As I said in my other post, in my first reading, I found the narration flowery. It threw me out of the story at first, and although it is semi-justified by the fact that Eva does write for a living, and is quite well-educated, I still found it quite jarring. I suppose it's also justified by Kevin's skill with words - his English teacher describes his writing as worthy of Swift, and comments on his vocabulary - since there are quite a few hints about just how much Kevin has inherited from Eva.
I also found the narrative to move irritatingly slowly. I wanted to find out what happened when he was (three days from) sixteen, not about before he was born, or what he was like as a baby or a toddler. But, when I did find out precisely what had happened when he was sixteen, I understood the point. I realised (especially after this second read-through) that I'd missed the whole story.
One major strength this novel has is in characterisation. The characters which are mainly dealt with are those of Kevin and Eva. In a book of almost four hundred pages, they are on every single one of them. They seem real, believable, solid. In contrast, more secondary characters like Franklin and Celia seem almost two dimensional and flat. But then, that's the point - the point of the novel is to understand Kevin and Eva as individuals, and as they relate to each other. As Eva herself acknowledges, this isn't something that can be easily explained - it's best understood by piling up all those little moments and anecdotes which seem flimsy by themselves, in order to build up a stronger understanding. This is what Shriver does, masterfully, over the course of those four hundred pages. Reading the novel a second time, knowing what was coming, I could take my time to fully absorb this.
The twist at the end of the novel changes ones viewpoint of Eva. She's not just an incidental character; she's important. She's the one member of Kevin's family whom he decided not to kill. Reading it over again, it becomes more apparent that Eva and Kevin were too alike. He didn't come from nowhere - his traits can be traced back, through his mother, and through other members of his family. It's this single combination that's deadly.
I also suspect that my own growth has changed my viewpoint. I've gone from nineteen to twenty-one between the times I read this book, and I've discovered the concept of Childfree. While I'm beginning to suspect that I'm merely childless, and not childfree - I'm a fence-sitter - I whole heartedly agree with the idea that no one should be expected to have children, just because they can and it's what their parents did.
Knowing about the childfree also makes it easier to understand the way that a mother can simply not like her own child. Again, as Eva comments in the novel, getting pregnant - or rather, trying to - is like leaving a door open. You never know which stranger is going to walk in.
A lot of people talk about loving their children no matter who they are, and what they're like. Can that really be called love, that undiscriminating, unspecific affection? If it makes no difference what they're like, then could you not love a wall just as easily? I suspect that's the difference Kevin noticed between his parents. His father loved him because he was his son. His mother disliked him because he was Kevin. And, in the end, he showed very clearly that he preferred his mother to his father.
I don't think the book has any huge point or moral. I just think it portrays a fascinating relationship, and I found that I could appreciate that much better the second time.
Looking at both of those, I think the main difference in my enjoyment of the novel is what I expected from it.
Anyone else read it?