Read Remark Book Review - The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Book Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

One-sentence summary:
Veblen, a squirrel-loving woman who’s more than a wee bit off center, feels ambiguous about her impending wedding to Paul.


The Portable Veblen goes off the rails a bit at the end. But then again, it’s off the rails pretty much from the beginning. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a bit much.

Generally, I like that about a book. If you’ve read Christopher Moore or Tom Robbins, you can appreciate a cast of quirky characters who don’t live by societal norms. It’s fun to fall into an almost alternate universe, where straight lines become curlicues and weirdos are heroes.

For some reason, it’s a little less organic here. Veblen’s constant conversations with the squirrel seemed a little forced and not as precious as I think they’re supposed to be. It seems more a portrait of Veblen surrendering to the undertow of insanity that’s been threatening to pull her under for some time.

The supporting characters are infuriating. Their quirkiness isn’t off-kilter and endearing. It’s irresponsible and selfish. The author does a good job of giving them some redeeming qualities at the very end, but wow, are they unlikeable.

It’s always gratifying to see flawed people. Parents, included. There tends to be a stereotype that once kids are in the picture, moms are supposed to become PG-rated, khaki-wearing homebodies and dads become hard-working sources of strength and wisdom. I say phooey to that. Parents are just as multi-layered and flawed as anyone else.

But The Portable Veblen seems to demonize flawed parents. Their imperfections are exaggerated and practically monstrous. It plays into that stereotype – the lack of parental khaki has turned Veblen and Paul into deeply damaged adults. Is there a parent version of madonna/whore?

The author shows Veblen and Paul in this whirling miasma of drama and feelings. But it’s difficult to see Veblen constantly accommodating and making excuses for her parents, who are just terrible.

A couple of scenes seem to exist for shock value, such as the fate of Cloris Hutmacher and a climactic scene with Paul and one of his patients.

Medical terms are strewn about willy nilly. Parts of the book are almost a medical jargon dump.

Having said all of this, The Portable Veblen is a delightful, enjoyable book. It seems like I just ripped it apart, which isn’t my intention.

It’s a cute, off-kilter story that includes all of the intricately messy complications of life and love and family.