At last I am done with The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. It is a fun book from start to finish, thought the finish is a little too… convenient? Cut and dry? Easy? Yes, easy I think. It doesn’t ruin the whole book or anything I just found myself wishing it were different.
The Portable Veblen is told mostly from the limited third person perspective of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and Paul Vreeland but sometimes the narrative switches to other perspectives including a squirrel’s. Paul and Veblen get engaged early in the novel but throughout Veblen has doubts. And for a while it seems like her doubts are legitimate because fundamentally her values and Paul’s do not match.
Paul, a neurologist who has invented a device to quickly and safely treat traumatic brain injuries in the field, is being sucked in by a huge pharmaceutical company. He is rather innocent to the fact that they want him and his patent so they can make a lot of money, not because they actually want to help people. Paul, believing himself to have “made it” exhibits a sudden interest in expensive, gas guzzling cars, expensive houses and flashy engagement rings.
Veblen is nervous about all of this and begins talking to squirrels. Again. We get hints that this is something she has done before and that it signals some possible mental health issues but we never get the story, just frequent visits from one particular squirrel and their “conversations.”
That Veblen has mental health issues is no surprise when we meet her overbearing, hypochondriac mother. Veblen has spent her entire life trying to smooth things over so as not to upset her mother. Veblen’s father is also in a mental institution being treated for severe PTSD and it isn’t clear whether he will ever be well enough to live on his own. So it is no wonder she thinks Paul’s easy going, laid back hippie parents are the best and fails to see they have their own family dynamic problems stemming from Paul’s brother Justin suffering brain damage at birth due to the cord being wrapped around his neck.
The novel is about Veblen and Paul but also their families and navigating the waters of mental health issues and family dynamics, of guilt and anger and repressed feelings and being forced into a particular role within the family not because that is what you want but because that is what the family wants. It affects who you become, how you navigate the world, and the manner in which you build a relationship with your future spouse.
Veblen is named for the economist and sociologist Thosrtein Veblen. I had heard the name before but knew nothing about the man. When I looked him up it turns out he coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” He was born in Wisconsin and then lived in Nerstrand, Minnesota for a very long time, went to college at Carleton College, just south of the Twin Cities. I discovered his family’s farm is a historical site that has been turned into a flower farm and wedding venue and if I want to make an appointment and pay what looks to be minimum $120 I and nine of my friends can have a tour, or I and a couple friends could have a tour and a picnic lunch or lemonade and cookies on the lawn. I will not be making a visit.
I very much enjoyed The Portable Veblen. I almost like squirrels now. Almost. The book is on the shortlist for the Bailey’s Prize. I am not sure it will win, but then again maybe it will. A Good book though regardless. If you are looking for something a little quirky, a bit sweet but not saccharine, character driven, and rich but not overly complex — it’s a Goldilocks kind of book — then chances are good you will have a pleasant reading experience.