When you become a parent, there’s that moment when you first see your child, after you’ve counted all the fingers and the toes and scrutinized every millimeter of skin for imperfections or mistakes, when you accept responsibility, completely and absolutely – and forever.
As it turns out, forever is both open to interpretation and impermanent.
This weekend, we visited our 20-year-old son at college. On Sunday morning, after grilling him continuously for 36 hours on whether he needed money, groceries, roach poisoning, and other essentials of college life, I knocked on the door of the hotel room that he and his younger brother were sharing while we were in town.
He was shirtless when he answered the door. “What’s this on your back?” I asked, when he turned slightly to the side at one point in the conversation. I reached up and pressed my finger on a large mole at the top of his back. I’d never noticed it before.
The dermatologist, he said, told him not to worry about it. It was a cosmetic flaw that could be removed if he wished.
For a few seconds after he shut the door, I stood in the hall, pondering the ribbed, yellowing wallpaper of the chain hotel. Then it hit me. He was not my person anymore. He paid his own rent, bought his own groceries, earned his own part-time pay. He visited the doctor without me.
I doubt I embarrassed him with this familiar act of touch. But it suddenly occurred to me that it was a fast fading right. I don’t own him anymore.
The revelation was at once shocking and exhilarating.
Did I have a hand in creating his ownership of self? I believe I did, but at what point did I/do I cease ownership?
Eva Khatchadourian wrestles with this question in “We need to talk about Kevin,” Lionel Shriver’s 2003 best-selling novel. Kevin has massacred several of his classmates, and Eva is left to wonder whether her son is a sociopath or if she is somehow to blame for his actions.
It’s a nature vs nuture debate. There’s a primal feel as both mother and son circle each other tensely throughout the novel, but by the end, we realize that it’s all an elaborate, intellectual game of chess. The pawns don’t make out well in this game.
Shriver’s a much better writer by the time she pens this novel. I came to “Kevin” by way of her latest novel, “The New Republic.” The latter was a book club pick, chosen because some members had read and enjoyed “Kevin.”
The problem with “The New Republic,” a barely readable book, is that Shriver wrote it before “Kevin” but published it after. She still had her training wheels on, and it shows.
It’s not often that you get to witness the evolution of a writer. I read both books side-by-side (both library books: one in hardcopy, the other an ebook). Given the accolades of my fellow readers, whose opinions I trust, I was puzzled by “The New Republic.”
Shriver had that annoying predilection that immature writers have to show off newly acquired vocabulary, taking every opportunity to insert a dollar word where a nickel word would’ve done nicely. (To be fair, I read this immediately after Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,“ a simpler text yet with equally as vivid imagery.)
In “Kevin,” Shriver has found the right balance between $1 and 5 cents. Her sentences are fluid and natural. They draw you in.
Characters drive narrative, and when they’re flatly drawn, the novel is much like a balloon without the air. That’s the case with “The New Republic,” but not with “Kevin.” Eva is full of contradictions and doubt, easily a complex character. There’s the danger that Kevin would be written as a mere sociopathic stereotype, but he’s not. The way Shriver creates him, “is he or is he not?” is the ping pong game that the reader plays throughout the novel.
“Kevin” is a keeper. “The New Republic” is not.