An exuberant, one-of-a-kind novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values by a brilliant New Yorker contributor. 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 words, 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 tete-a-tete with a very charismatic squirrel.
Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term conspicuous consumption) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and "freelance self"; in other words, she's adrift. Meanwhile, Paul - the product of good hippies who were bad parents - finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma - an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a bizarro world that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity. As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding until she finds herself falling for someone - or something - else.
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 sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying experience.
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Not what it was cracked up to be
Actually, I consider the time spent listening to this book to be a waste of several hours. Maureen Corrigan on NPR raved about this book. But I was mostly annoyed. The "squirrel theme" was silly beyond measure. It was hard to understand what "Paul," the male protagonist found interesting/charming about the young woman, or even why the two of them where together, except for a coup de foudre. And the fact that everyone in the book is either venal, mentally handicapped, cute or crazy did not make it easy to choose sides.
Nope. I don't have much tolerance for whimsy or fantasy. I should have know from the beginning to avoid the book.
The narrator did a heroic job, one that required her to speak Norwegian and "squirrel." However, she seemed to have only one voice for women of a certain age, so both mothers tended to sound alike. And it was a strange accent, kind of upper clas mid-Atlantic, which didn't seem to match the California setting. Oh, and another thing: the author seems to have confused PTSD with schizophrenia. The endless worry about whether her daughter and inherited her father's "crazy" gene, when it is said over and over that he was shell shocked and maybe had a traumatic brain injury. What? Especially in a book that tosses around so much scientific terminology.
I couldn't take another one, thank you very much. I'd return this one, but I 'read" it all the way to the end, hoping it would improve, or make sense.
- Linda "Former editor at The New York Times and Farrar Straus & Giroux. Looking for work."
Quirky and thoughtful