The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

Posted January 1, 2016 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth MckenzieThe Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie
Published by Penguin on January 19th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Women, Fiction, General, Humorous, Literary
Pages: 304
Source: First to Read

“We’re old enough not to care what our parents think, but somehow we do,” Paul admitted, philosophically.“That’s for sure. ” “Because they allowed us to exist. ” 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.

3.75 Stars. As quirky as you would expect, given the cover! Part ruminations on marriage and family and part statement on materialism, consumerism, and the military-industrial complex, The Portable Veblen’s strength is its complicated, memorable characters. I received this book from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review. It will be released on January 19, 2016.

I love squirrels. This little guy has permanent residency on my desk:

So I had to read this book!

Veblen, 30, is filled with anxieties and neuroses, primarily induced by her narcissistic, hypochondriac mother. She was never really close with her father, who is now institutionalized. She is now a secretary who does translation work on-the-side as a hobby. Like her namesake, the real-life Thorstein Veblen, she detests consumerism and materialism. She is happy with her small life and cozy little home, which she renovated herself. When she agrees to marry her boyfriend Paul, the engagement brings many deep-seated issues to the surface. Oh, and she talks to squirrels.

Paul, 34, was raised in a hippy commune. He resents his parents for his unconventional childhood and for favoring his developmentally disabled brother. Paul is now a neurologist and is dedicated to carving out a life completely separate from the one he grew up in. He finally reaches the success he has been chasing when he develops a revolutionary tool that will minimize the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury in war zones. Success isn’t so sweet though because he ends up in a complicated relationship with the pharmaceutical industry and the military-industrial complex. His desire for a traditional middle-class life also causes complications in his relationship with Veblen.

“Have you read Marriage: Dead or Alive?” Veblen said no.“It’s the magnum opus of Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig. He says marriage is a continuous inevitable confrontation that can be resolved only through death. ”

I grew really fond of the characters. I could really relate to many of Veblen’s personality quirks, especially being hyperaware of her own flaws and her need to maintain an equilibrium. (“I feel like I’m not allowed to be bothered. ” “Not allowed?” “It’s like I’m under pressure from some higher source to remain calm or neutral, to prevent something terrible from happening.”) Veblen has a rich inner life and she overanalyzes everything, which is a source of much of the humor. I really loved the pride she took in her cozy little home and her empathy for all living creatures. Paul is hard to like at first, but as his family history is revealed, his motivations and actions become understandable.

Then she snapped out of it, and they laughed about it, and she came to understand that this recognition of otherness would occur over and over until death they did part, that she couldn’t despair every time it occurred, and that anyway, Paul wasn’t a dictator like her mother…yet it was clear that your choice of mate would shape the rest of your life in ways you couldn’t begin to know. One by one, things he didn’t like would be jettisoned. First squirrels, then turkey meatballs, then corn, then—what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.

There is so much going on in this book. It addresses so many issues and I don’t feel like everything 100% meshed together, at least on first reading. It almost seems like two books. A week after reading, what sticks with me most is the character portraits, the couple interactions, and the family dynamics. The military-industrial complex/pharmaceutical sections are already starting to fade from my memory, although it did create an ethical dilemma for Paul and ramifications on Paul’s and Veblen’s relationship. The mood of the military sections felt a little different too, a little more absurd. There are also a few random, irrelevant pictures featured throughout the book, mostly to up the quirk factor. They didn’t really add much for me and the decision to include them didn’t seem fully committed since they were few and far between.

She started to run, feeling the warmth of the sun and the rub of the grass under her soles, remembering how running used to make her pretend to be Mighty Mouse, shouting, “Here I come to save the day!” and later on, Maria singing, “The hills are alive … ” and then thinking it very strange that she could not run across grass without pretending to be someone other than herself, for even now she found herself in search of something to think when running across grass.

The Portable Veblen is partially about the impact our childhoods have on us, the break for independence, and discovering your own identity outside of your family. Veblen really struggles with tying herself to another person, especially when she is still inextricably intertwined with her mother. She is fearful about what she will have to give up when she gets married. Veblen eventually realizes she can have a relationship with her mother, without being an extension of her. Likewise, she can get married without losing herself and her ideals. Paul realizes that he doesn’t have to be the complete opposite of his family to be his own person.

‘If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, or some guy on TV telling you how to do your crapola, then you deserve it. ’ Paul and Veblen, I think you’ll understand me when I say that we’ll always be here for you, but that your own crapola is where it’s at…”

I had fun reading this novel. The writing was pleasant and the pages flew by. It may have run a little long, but I was sad when it ended. After the story ends, there are appendices that serve as “Where are they now?” chapters. It was a really cute way to end it and it suited the mood of the book. It is the perfect book for when you are in the mood for a weird, cozy, funny, heartfelt book, with a bit of whimsy.

According to Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig, the Swiss analyst and author of Marriage: Dead or Alive, a wedding is more than a party or a legality. It’s no less than a boxing ring, two people facing off, acknowledging their separate identities rather than their union, in the company of all the people who lay claim to them. A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future.”


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