The Portable Veblen came highly recommended on Twitter by Anna James and Elizabeth (then Preston) Morris and compared to the quirky Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, which I did not really enjoy when I first read it, but have come to appreciate as time goes by. So, when I learnt I would be spending a week in the UK, I made a list of books that I needed to purchase and The Portable Veblen was at the top. Luckily for me I found it for £2 with some minor damage to the cover.
Veblen is a young woman about to marry Paul, the first man that she has ever established a connection with. This is the story of how they got engaged, how they planned the wedding, how to make their very different families connect, and the medical industry. You have read it correctly. Paul works for a medical company researching a tool that the US army could use in cases of brain hemorrhage, Veblen herself has some mental health issues, and her mother is a hypocondriac. As you can imagine this mix makes up for a quirky novel. And I forgot to tell you that Veblen has a relationship with a squirrel that enters her house, Paul wants to catch, and she finally sets free – although the squirrel follows her across California.
With a plot like that, The Portable Veblen is a promising, quirky book. But I am afraid it does not deliver the same way Bernadette did. I tried to establish a connection with Veblen but found it almost impossible, not because she is unlikable, on the contrary, because she is too bland. Years spent with her hypochondriac and attention-seeker mother have erased Veblen, so that she does not make up for an interesting main character. She is not sure she is in love with Paul, and his behaviour set off some alarms whilst reading, but at the end of the day this novel is a love story between two people with special families. And although we all have special families and issues that we wish would never see the light of day, it is not so for Paul and Veblen. Their families are unnerving, but eventually they do almost nothing about it.
I really wanted to enjoy the book, and I have to admit the first chapters were very sweet, but as a whole I was a bit disappointed. However, as I was thrilled by the beginning of Veblen’s story I gave it 3 stars at Goodreads and I truly believe this book has a target audience and I was the problem, rather than the novel itself. I am writing this review a month after finishing reading just because I found the novel on my desk and I had the feeling I had some reviews left to write. But the book had completely escaped my mind.
Now, I am curious to hear what you thought of the book if you read it, or if by reading what the blurb says you would be interested:
The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.
Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.
As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience. (less)