According 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?