Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016
The Portable Veblen Synopsis :
A riotously funny and deeply insightful adventure through capitalism, the medical industry, family, love, war and wedding-planning – from an electrically entertaining new voice.
Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.
Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence.
What could possibly go wrong?
One of our Top 10 International Reads of 2016
My inherent radar for the combination of literary, quirky and witty drew me to Elizabeth McKenzie’s novel The Portable Veblen.
Firstly, McKenzie’s prose is a delight to read, at times whimsical, but always with a strong emotional connection.
The waterway roared, as frothy as a cauldron, a heaving jam of the year’s broken brambles and debris. She watched the wind jerk the trees, quivering, scattering their litter. The creek roared, you see. Did water fret about madness? Did trees?
This is a story of and about details. The characters’ introspection (and undoubtedly other psychological categorisations) lead them to identifying meaning in the smallest things – the results ranging from wonderment and appreciation, to unhealthy obsession and compulsion.
An example of the hilariously deadpan dialogue between Veblen and fiancee Paul:
“Everything all right?”
Paul grabbed a dish towel and twisted it. “It’s probably not fair to hate her for saying ‘in clinic,’ is it? ‘I’ll see you in clinic.'”
“She dropped the article? What a bitch.”
“Yeah. It sounds clammy and invasive, like she’s breathing on my … “
But The Portable Veblen‘s story arc, explores with depth and compassion the complicated relationship children (no matter what age) can have with their parents.
A life could be spent like an apology—to prove you had been worth it.
For the most part the often tangential subject matter (some quite high-brow), or more accurately McKenzie’s witty presentation of it, held my interest. However, the lead character’s reflections on the life of economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen, and her propensity for listing things, stretched my engagement in the mid-section.
However I am pleased to report that The Portable Veblen‘s pace soon quickened and all that had unravelled (storylines and characters alike!) came together in a beautifully farcical denouement.
PS: I know some people make a point of not reading epilogues and the like, but trust me, read McKenzie’s story appendices – they are a real treat.
BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
Genre: Literature, Romance, Drama, Humour
About the Author, Elizabeth McKenzie
Elizabeth McKenzie’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She lives in Santa Cruz, California. She is also the author of MacGregor Tells the World, Stop That Girl, and editor of My Postwar Life.
Other reviews of The Portable Veblen
* My receiving a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.