Too Much Quirk: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

25431238According to Goodreads, I finished The Portable Veblen on August 1. I wouldn’t know, otherwise. The book was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I was lucky to get the audiobook for free. That is to say, I am glad I didn’t purchase the book. It didn’t do anything for me. My reading experience was like sitting in a tub with lukewarm water. There was no heat to scold me, no cold to shock me, and I really only stayed in the water because I had already gone through all the trouble of drawing a bath.

I knew going into the book that it might not be a particular good fit for me, since I haven’t been in the mood for quirky heroines for almost a year now. But the book promised to explore some interesting questions about family and loyalty, so I was willing to overlook the quirkiness, if possible.

And there were indeed some interesting family dynamics at work. Veblen—named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, of which I had never heard—has an institutionalized father and a hypochondriac mother. The man her mother lives with is even more patient than Veblen when it comes to her mother’s constant fretting and manipulations. Veblen’s fiancé Paul has parents who never outgrew the hippie stage and are still busy selling pot, a business that leaves them plenty of time to take care of Paul’s handicapped brother. Paul is deeply resentful of his parents’ odd parenting style and their apparent preference of the brother. While Veblen dabbles in Norwegian translations and does some office work, Paul is on his way to becoming a successful medical researcher with the goal to minimize battlefield brain trauma. Somehow, all these people have to work out living with each other—and without each other—once Veblen and Paul decide to get married and start planning the wedding.

The most interesting part of the story was the ethical dilemma surrounding the usage of the medical device that Paul invented. Itching for success and money, Paul is easily swayed by the beautiful heiress of the pharmaceutical company that wants to market his device before it has been properly tested and approved. The success, fame, and money Paul has been hungering for are suddenly within reach, but at the same time he is faced with the very real suffering of injured soldiers and their families. For me, the strength of the book lay in these sections of the book. The parts that involved that heartless heiress became successful satire, driven by very astute observations.

The rest of the book? Not so much. Have you ever seen a slightly cheesy movie where the guy is attracted to the girl because she’s the one going against the grain? The one who drives the hand-painted VW Beetle rather than a sleek BMW? The one who can somehow afford to live in a cute little wildflower-framed cottage among lots of million-dollar bungalows by the seaside? That was Veblen to me. I never grew to fully like her.

And those squirrels…! Unlike Veblen, I am not particularly fond of squirrels, because they constantly dig up my flowers. I dislike their indecision when they are in the middle of crossing the street, suddenly stopping, twitching, unable to commit to either turning around or keep going. But aside from this dislike, I truly didn’t think the squirrels added anything to the story as a whole—other than underscoring Veblen’s quirkiness, which I was already aware of and, as expected, was slightly annoyed by. Overall, it was a rather disappointing read for me.

For other views, please see the review in the New York Times (a “screwball comedy” with “festive originality”) and the Los Angeles Times (a “refreshing, life-affirming and funny novel”). There is a giveaway on Goodreads that runs until November 6.

Have you read the book? How did you like the squirrels?

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20 comments

  1. I had pretty much the same feelings about this book. I too thought that Paul’s ethical dilemma was the best part of the book, but everything else was just meh. Veblen was annoying rather than quirky, and the whole thing with the squirrels was just weird and not in a good way.
    I’m so glad to see someone else who didn’t really enjoy it that much – just about everyone else I’ve spoken to about it enjoyed it.

  2. Oh, I loved this book, especially the squirrels! Now they make me laugh whenever I see them. But I really identified with Veblen because of her relationship with her mother. I also liked the way the book really explored the uncertainties of being engaged. I’m very happily married but getting married was scary for me (again, related to my relationship with my mother).

    • I’m so glad you got more out of the book than I did. I was thinking that I was a bit too harsh with Veblen and her mother. I just don’t do too well with hypochondriacs (daily exposure to one at work). In the end, I was glad that she and Paul moved away. It was probably the best for everyone.

  3. I do not like squirrels and I assume they all I have rabies. I admit this may be unfair stereotyping of squirrels. I do still want to read The Portable Veblen, though, despite the self-conscious quirkiness thing. I’m sufficiently interested in what I’ve heard about the family relationships in the story that I want to at least give it a try.

  4. Based on some of the reviews I’ve seen, I suspect this is one of those marmite books that divides readers into two quite separate camps. The description always makes me think of Miranda July, a filmmaker whose work also falls into the quirky category – I have to be in a certain frame of mind to watch her films and even then they don’t always work for me. It’s a tricky thing to get right this kind of tone…

    • I know exactly what you mean by having to be in the right frame of mind for this type of novel or movie. I clearly wasn’t in the right frame of mind, so it wasn’t entirely fair to listen to the book and review it. I just hoped it had a little more to say about family dynamics, other than the fact that the parents made the kids miserable and they tried to rebelled. I’m sure that at one point in life, we all find ourselves in that position and we all somehow deal with it. God knows there are worse things in the world than having a narcissistic or guilt-driven mother.

  5. Okay, I have to admit that I like squirrels. But I like Chipmunks more! 🙂
    I know there’s a squirrel on the cover, but I didn’t realize they played such a big part in the book – now I’m kind of curious what they’re doing…
    This is a great line, and I feel this way a lot with books that aren’t going as well as expected/hoped for: “There was no heat to scold me, no cold to shock me, and I really only stayed in the water because I had already gone through all the trouble of drawing a bath.”

    • The squirrels are central to the story, but I didn’t buy it. I might be too cynical. I also still hold a grudge against squirrels in particular because they took a bite out of almost all of our hot peppers this summer, only to spit it out and bite the next one. I also like chipmunks much better! Especially if their cheeks are stuffed with food. 🙂

      • Oh, yes, I can see why those little rascals would have made you mad. Good thing we only have the deer after our garden – you can keep them out with a fence. I don’t know what you do about squirrels. Actually, maybe it’s because we have cats? Do you have cats around? I just thought of that now, because the other day we saw evidence of a squirrel hunt (the lower half of its body).

  6. Awwww! I love squirrels! In trees, preferably, rather than in books, though. This sounds way too quirky for me, and the very words ‘screwball comedy’ would put me off – I can take screwball in films, but not in books… sorry you didn’t enjoy it more, but squirrels in the bathtub are never fun… 😉

    • I don’t think this book is for you! Although I’d like to see you review it. 🙂 Oh my Goodness, your remark about squirrels in the bathtub just reminded me of the time when I went to take a shower and there was a squirrel sitting in the bathroom sink. It had somehow climbed up the shower drain, although we have absolutely no idea how it would have gotten into the pipes. The squirrel was sitting in the sink shivering with fear, and I was stupidly standing in the bathtub screaming, too afraid to get out. My husband and I still get a good laugh out of that one! I need to remind him of that incident tonight…

      • Hahaha! Poor you! Isn’t it odd how we get so scared of wee creatures? I remember being in a room with a bat once – ,my screams must have been audible from Mars! 😉

    • They took a bite out of almost every hot pepper we grew this summer, only to spit it out because it was too hot for them. It didn’t stop them from biting into the next one, though. Definitely not a squirrel fan!

    • Thanks, Debbie. The only positive that has come out of the squirrels’ stupidity when crossing the road is that they serve as perfect examples for my kids, who on a daily basis are reminded of how NOT to cross the street.

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