Book Review: 'The Portable Veblen'

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Elizabeth McKenzie. Penguin Press, 430 pp. $26.

The interesting thing about interesting books is that sometimes they can be hard to place, within the context of a "shelf" or genre or even just within your own mind. I kind of feel this way about Elizabeth McKenzie's "The Portable Veblen."

The two characters at work here are Veblen and Paul. Paul is a neurologist on the brink of something that could change the way certain medical procedures are done. He's become quite successful, and he's surrounded himself with successful friends who are all going places.

Veblen is a temp secretary and has no aspirations of doing anything else. In her spare time, she translates documents from Norwegian ― for which she is not paid ― and talks with squirrels. She and Paul could not be more different.

And yet they meet, and they fall in love and they get engaged.

What I love about "The Portable Veblen" is the quirk. I like how McKenzie creates what can be seen as caricatures to work through a very real situation ― two people, not alike in any way, engaged and trying to find a way to build a life together.

But, in the same way I like the quirk, it annoys me a little bit. There were some points while reading this book that I just wished the characters would be "normal." It would be easier to connect with them if I could relate to them just a little bit better.

But perhaps that's the point. "The Portable Veblen" has a certain distance to it. The reader is not a part of the story so much as she is watching it from far away, observing it like Veblen observes the squirrel sitting on her mother's windowsill, or perhaps like the squirrel is observing Veblen's life as a whole.

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