The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie was published in January 2016 by Penguin Press.
‘An exuberant, one-of-a-kind novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values by a brilliant New Yorker contributor
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 (anti-establishment) 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.‘ (Courtesy of Goodreads)
A novel with one of the quirkiest characters I have ever come across. Veblen is a combination of so many personalities all wrapped into one bundle of eccentricity. Veblen works as a temp and lives in small house. She counts as her inspiration, her namesake, Thorstein Veblen, an American economist & sociologist. Veblen talks to squirrels and is utterly convinced that this communication is two-way.
Her mother is a hypochondriac and her father is in a psychiatric facility, leaving Veblen with, what can only be described, as a very alternative upbringing. She is constantly pandering to her mothers neurotic flare ups. Yet she seems willing to continue with this in order to maintain the sense of equilibrium she feels she has achieved so far in her life. ‘She had once concluded everyone on earth was a servant to the previous generation – born from the body’s factory for entertainment and use. A life could be spent like an apology – to prove you had been worth it.’
Life throws a curveball at Veblen when she meets Paul. Paul is a doctor who is involved in research and is on the cusp of a great discovery. Paul inhabits a different social circle to Veblen but he finds her approach to life so fresh, so innocent & just so different that together they make a great team. He introduces her to his circle but with Veblen, the glow soon disappears off his ‘friends’.
‘He’d introduced her with satisfaction, and there were toasts to the engagement & plenty of lip service to what a hottie she was, but when they found out she wasn’t on a notable career path, they seemed unable to synthesize her into their social tableau, as if Paul had chosen a mail-order bride’
Paul is another very interesting character. He is the son of aging hippies and has a brother with a mental disorder. He has this constant need to prove himself and achieve the life that he never had whilst growing up. When he encounters Veblen, she is the antithesis of this. He tries hard to understand her rather unusual approach to life and gets swept along in the mayhem. Paul is eager for their relationship to move forward & marriage is soon on the cards. This involves the ensuing meeting of two rather unusual families. Elizabeth McKenzie portrays all these scenes brilliantly. All our families are different. We all have our completely different upbringings and resulting families but Paul & Veblen’s family get-togethers are definitely unique. They both discover that they have a lot more in common than they thought. There is one particular sequence in a conversation between Paul and Veblen that takes place after a meal with his parents. It gives a very good insight into the two of them and the effect that their childhood had on them.
‘”To be healthy, I have to get rid of this baggage,” he admitted.
“It’s like a scar”, she offered, to cocoon the matter.
“It’s worse than a scar, I’m practically crippled.”
“Everybody has sore spots”, she whispered.
“Yep. Thank you for allowing me to have scars and sore spots.”
“Mmm”, she said, biting her arm higher up, where there was more flesh.’
Throughout the novel, Veblen has an extraordinary relationship with a squirrel. I suppose one has to look at this as a relationship an only child could easily imagine & develop as real. She is a Dr. Doolittle character who is seemingly more at ease in the company of animals than humans. Her fear of commitment is all too evident in her inner thoughts and in the conversations she has with the squirrels.
The Portable Veblen has been shortlisted in the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction award. I would rate it a 3* read. Veblen is quirky and funny but at times the novel drifted off into areas that I found myself skimming over just to get on to the next chapter. It is definitely a novel worth checking out, if for nothing else…it’s very, very different.
I got my copy through the Cork City Library Borrowbox facility.
Let me know what you think.
Til next time.