Bailey’s 2016 Shortlist Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
For those of you new to our blog, we (or I should say Book Worm) have been making our way through the Bailey’s Shortlist so we can make our predictions and recommend our favorites to you. Our final contender on the 2016 shortlist is a book that we both read: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. In a few days we’ll post our predictions for which book we think will win the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction (to be announced on June 8) along with a ranked list of our favorites. Here’s what we both thought of The Portable Veblen.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Published in: 2016
Reviewed by: Book Worm and Jen
Find it here: The Portable Veblen
Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.
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.
Book Worm’s Thoughts: 3 stars. I really wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. It has squirrels that communicate with humans — surely that should have made me happy? Well it would have done, if the squirrels had featured more prominently, but they were more of a sideline than a major plot factor.
What I liked about the book is that it is a different kind of romance. Rather than trying to find Mr Perfect, the protagonist, Veblen, has already found her man. The focus is on figuring out whether she can accept his flaws, learn to live with them, and survive their two families before the wedding. This made it a more realistic book about relationships rather than the typical fairytale romance. I also liked that the author was able to portray the investment of entire families in the marriage of two people.
What I didn’t like was how every character had to have some kind of issue and I really do mean every character. There was not one person in the whole book who was functionally normal. And while I didn’t like Veblen’s fiancé. I am glad Veblen accepted him, as I am not sure who else would have done.
There are some good moments in the book, but overall I just felt kind of meh.
“She felt an intimation of change. That until now she had been a Christmas tree decorated by someone who hated Christmas.”
“The bed of a tortured soul is always in shambles by morning”
“She watched the angry buttocks propel her mother’s bulk a few more steps, but then the angry buttocks gave up. The angry buttocks pivoted around.”
Jen’s Thoughts: 3 stars. “Can’t beat a book with a squirrel on the cover” is a thought that should never sway you into reading a book. I dislike satire. Correction: I dislike satire focused on family relationships and parenting. In fact, I quite like social and political satire. This was not political satire. It was the sort of satire I dislike and, sadly, even the delightful squirrel appearances could not assuage my lack of enjoyment.
I’m a psychologist in my “real” life AND I just so happen to work at a VA hospital in a position that is a combination of research and clinical. I work with many people whose families have caused them significant emotional pain. I don’t think borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or hypochondriasis are funny and as a result I couldn’t find humor in McKenzie’s characters.
I have also applied for DoD grants and federal funding for my own research. Why is this important? One of the plot lines is the trope of the corrupt agency and evil corporate company that fund Paul’s (one of the central characters) research. Think comatose patients signed up for clinical trial studies with questionable informed consent while the evil companies profit. The whole subplot was ridiculous and frankly pissed me off. Yes, yes, I get that it’s satire and that’s part of the point. Call me overly sensitive, I just didn’t like it.
The book isn’t really at fault here. It was well-written, quirky, and intelligent. I think many people will truly love this book and I think it belongs on the shortlist because it’s quite creative. It just happens to satirize some hot button issues for me and as a result I disliked it. I wanted to love it. Much like the protagonist, I have very strange love of squirrels. I even went to a college whose mascot was a black squirrel. Why the 3-star rating? I loved the ending. The author tones down the satire in the last third of the book and as a result, I really enjoyed it. So, I hated the first two thirds and loved the last third. If you want to read a good review of the book by someone who loved it, check out this review from The Book Stop.
Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: The Portable Veblen
We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think?