There is so much to dislike about this book – Eva, her son, her husband, the evil acts. In fact, it’s quite incredible that so much dislike can add up to immense appreciation. This book made me think, and think. On several occasions I had to stop, put the book down and walk away. Partly this is due to its density – Shriver uses long, convoluted sentences to convey complex and often contradictory emotions, while somehow also moving back and forward in time. But density is not the only reason this book demands that you read slowly. The main reason is that from page 1, you are sat in the uncomfortable position of judge, with a huge plate of blame to proportion.
Let me just lay bare my own internal conflict. For starters, I didn’t like Eva one iota. If there is a maternal-spectrum out there, I would like to think this lady is at one end and I am at the other. The ambivalence, the selfishness, the resentment. But…as a rule I couldn’t conclude that she was all of those things all of the time. In fact, not even mostly. On some counts, she was faultless. Patient, committed to the end, loving (even if it was what she might call a “studied” love). I also couldn’t say (and here’s the conflict) that I haven’t, at times, shared such feelings of ambivalence, selfishness and resentment during the course of raising my own 3 kids. Not in the same situations or same ways, but… I’m by no means a perfect parent just because I strongly desired to have kids and the woman in this story never did. In fact, the definition of what it means to be a “good” mother is what is thrust under the microsope from the get-go. In this way, the book holds up the socially-constructed ideal of “motherhood” to the light, revealing that the whole thing is riddled with holes.
I’ve dropped a star because I would have been challenged to a much greater extent if the son hadn’t been a psychopath of such evil proportions. No matter how much blame you may ultimately lay at the feet of his mother, his father, their dysfunction, society or wherever else culpability may lie – none of it, I believe, could have caused (or even contributed) to Kevin becoming the cold-blooded, pre-meditated murderer he ultimately became. I realise that by holding this view I must accept the only other alternative position offered by Shriver – which is that psychopaths are “born” rather than made. Iddy biddy widdle murderers sucking at the breast (bbrrrr). But this I cannot accept either; nothing in life is that black and white. And therein lies my criticism – Shriver’s “grey” areas were not nearly blurry enough for me.
It would have been far more plausible, and the internal conflict referred to above ever more urgent, if Kevin’s crime had been just a notch or two less outrageous (choosing words carefully to avoid spoiling). Similarly, if his parents were just slightly more dysfunctional I might have believed that evil of some degree could somehow begin to take root. They needed far more emotional baggage between them, perhaps something to attest to childhood abuse, poverty or discrimination. Any fuckedup-ness with some substance would have done it! But come on – a few disagreements over parenting style (who doesn’t have those??!), a woman who cherished her freedom and a father who was blinded by love… these are crimes how?
Something about this hollowness prevented me from getting giddy with nerves about how much responsibility (and credit) will fall at my feet for how my children “turn out” in life. With slight tweaking (and a little less emphasis on cleverness) I would have been running scared. Perhaps it’s just as well it missed the mark for me!