“Can you hate someone for what they have done, but still love them for whom they had been?”
― Jodi Picoult,
“It’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood.”
― Lionel Shriver,
Peter Houghton is the gun-toting teenaged school shooter protagonist in Jodi Picoult’s ‘Nineteen Minutes’. Kevin Khatchadourian is the gun-toting teenaged school shooter protagonist in Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’. Both these books are about a school shooting (different ones) and focus on the events leading up to and following the tragic incident.
That’s where the similarities end. Oh wait. As of 28th May 2017, both the books have a ‘4 and above out of 5’ rating on GoodReads.
Allow me to take you through two riveting books of the 2000-2010 decade. Two books that will completely change your thought process about how teenagers choose to think, act and protect themselves.
First off, let me state for the record that Lionel Shriver published her extraordinary book in 2006, and Jodi Picoult in 2007. But that does not mean you should read the books in that order. I strongly recommend that you read ‘Nineteen Minutes’ before ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, for reasons that will be clear by the time you reach the end of this ‘Distinguish-between’ type of review.
“If you gave someone your heart and they died, did they take it with them? Did you spend the rest of forever with a hole inside you that couldn’t be filled?”
― Jodi Picoult,
“…You can only subject people to anguish who have a conscience. You can only punish people who have hopes to frustrate or attachments to sever; who worry what you think of them. You can really only punish people who are already a little bit good.
― Lionel Shriver,
Let me take you through the main differences that I thought made one book better than the other:
- The POV (Point of View)
While Jodi Picoult has written Nineteen Minutes from the Third Person Omniscient POV, Lionel Shriver opted for the First Person POV. The character she chose for this narration was Kevin’s mother, Eva Khatchadourian.
In my opinion, Nineteen Minutes gave all the characters an equal chance to express their feelings, thereby giving Peter Houghton’s voice as much space as the other characters. It gives an overview of what everyone felt. We Need to Talk About Kevin is more microscopic in nature. Eva solely talks about the effect that Kevin’s killing spree had on herself and her family. The other characters were given just what they deserved: very less page-space for their thoughts and feelings. Which leads me to the next point:
- Whom did the shooting affect?
Nineteen Minutes portrays the effect of a shooting on everyone in the community, and the effect of everyone in the community on the killer himself. There’s Peter’s former best friend, Josie Cormier. Her mother, Alex Cormier. Alex’s former best friend, Lacy Houghton, who also happens to be Peter’s mother. Peter’s father, Lewis Houghton. Peter’s brother, Joey. The detective in the police force, Patrick Ducharme. Josie’s boyfriend, Matthew Royston. Their group of friends. Peter’s lawyer, Jordan McAfee. The kids who died. Their families.
The list of characters shown to be affected in We Need to Talk About Kevin is shorter. Kevin, himself. His mother, Eva. His father, Franklin. His younger sister, Celia. That’s it.
In my opinion, the latter book’s brevity is its saviour. The lesser the characters, the more scope for exploring each one’s emotions. Keep in mind, this book is written entirely from Kevin’s mom’s POV. So we understand everyone’s emotions solely through what Eva felt and intuited.
Linking to the next point:
- The Warning Signs
Because We Need To Talk About Kevin is written from the mother’s POV, we readers have an exclusive chance to watch Kevin’s development from a toddler to a killer. And so does Kevin’s mother. She herself recognizes certain warning signs in her kid’s behaviour, but can’t do anything about it. (For reasons you will understand once you read the book.)
But Jodi Picoult does not get this opportunity because of the Third Person Omniscient POV. There are a few instances of Peter’s childhood which are revealed via Josie, Alex, Lacy and Lewis’s connection with Peter. We read about the incidents which led to Peter killing his classmates, but we don’t see the warning signs clearly. Thus, there is no portrayal of Peter’s mother ever gaining any tiny breadcrumb of insight into the fact that her son could grow up to be a killer. (Spoiler Alert) In fact, there is a scene where Peter is shown to have AVOIDED killing an animal, because he didn’t want to. (Spoiler Alert End)
Which leads us to the next point:
- Predictability of the ending
For me, the sole reason why Shriver could manipulate the reader into being totally confused about Kevin is the choice of POV. Would you rather believe what Kevin’s mother told you, or would you believe in the cold, hard facts lying six feet under the ground? A reader would find this to be a terrible dilemma. Mind you, I couldn’t decide what to believe until I reached the end of the book. The ending of the book made the tables turn in such a dramatic fashion, that I quite felt my mind being blown away into a million tiny parts.
Whereas in Nineteen Minutes, the sole blame of Peter’s killing spree is placed on the fact that he was bullied in school / was a sensitive kid / was a geek / wasn’t a cool kid, etc. This makes it easier for the reader to understand whom to support. Also, the ending of the book was not very shocking or difficult to come to terms with. Because that was exactly what the reader expected would happen in the first place, because nothing else could have been possible. Personally, I feel this book completely predictable. (Spoiler Alert) I realised how the ending would pan out when I reached Josie’s revelation about Matt’s behaviour. (Spoiler Alert End)
- The Whole Point
Nineteen Minutes spoke about the evils of bullying, the need to understand each other from an early age, the school cafeteria system where kids are brought up to believe that they must be cool and must hang out with the right type of crowd i.e. cool kids. In short, it covers almost every issue that a teenager in America (and everywhere) faces. Which is very commendable, I have to agree.
We Need to Talk About Kevin places more emphasis on motherhood, the incorrect fact in which we believe: ‘adults always know what to do and they are always right’, the pain of making a decision that you didn’t want to make, the heart-twisting agony of not knowing whom to stand for and whom to believe, the inability of ability to do something, anything to prevent a tragedy from occuring.
If you consider the separate goals of the books, the POV selected by each author is completely justified.
But, if you consider the clichedness of the story, I would whole-heartedly scream from the top of the mountain that Lionel Shriver did the best job possible in doing something different. After all, it is very difficult to convince a reader to pick up a book where the protagonist is the mother of a killer. And then, to convince the reader that the mother could not have done anything to prevent the murder of kids her son’s age. Come on. If you were to meet the mother of a convicted serial killer, would you have the decency to offer her tea and biscuits, or would you run across to the other side of the road?
- Ease of reading.
Nineteen Minutes is an easier book to read as compared to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Both the books are approximately the same length, Shriver’s work being lesser by 40 words. But her book is the one which gets really tough to read.
This is because the whole book is in the form of letters to Eva’s estranged husband, Franklin. And what do people do when they write letters to each other? Exactly. They write too many letters (pun intended) and thus, they ramble.
- Recommended order of reading:
I made the mistake of reading Lionel Shriver’s book before Jodi Picoult’s book. I would recommend you not to do the same, because then you would feel that one book was better than the other. Whereas, when I think about it clearly, I understand that both books are enlightening in their own fashion. Hence, to avoid any bias, read Nineteen Minutes before We Need To Talk About Kevin.
And if you have already made the same mistake that I had made, don’t worry. Just don’t read Nineteen Minutes with the expectation that it would be as exhilarating as We Need to Talk About Kevin, and you’ll be sorted.