The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie is the first book in my quest to read The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
“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 pages, 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 tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.” GoodReads.
It’s hard to say when The Portable Veblen went from being a difficult read to a captivating novel, perhaps around the time protagonists Veblen and Paul go to meet Melissa, Veblen’s mother. There were moments, chunks of Veblen’s thoughts, that stuck out to me regardless and helped me continue in those first few difficult chapters. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Squirrel.
Veblen is a unique woman, sheltered and naïve. Her mother is overbearing, meaning that Veblen is only just emerging into existence at 30. She often sacrifices her own happiness to keep other people happy, avoid conflict and keep her anxiety at bay. This means she is at once wonderfully unique and not fully formed, still biting her own arm when the fear overtakes her. For anyone who suffers from anxiety this will be familiar reading.
She often makes observations that she says things because she feels she should rather than responding truthfully. Which struck me as something women generally do, ‘oh he bought me something so I should love it’. The patriarchal assumption that male attention deserves female gratitude.
Paul is a different kind of special, where Veblen is overly accepting Paul is overly judgemental. He perceives he is the normal to Veblen’s weird, however his own adolescence, overshadowed by a disabled older brother, made its mark. Their engagement begins Paul’s unravelling and leads to the realisation that he and Veblen fit together better than he ever imagined.
Aside from Veblen and Paul, the other character who stood out was Melissa. Veblen’s mother is narcissistic, over bearing and unable to let Veblen live an autonomous existence. Even as a child Veblen was treated with disdain and flurries of emotional breakdowns when she (inadvertently or not) upsets her mother. She learns quickly to read her mother’s moods and say what she wants her to say. This woman made me so incredibly angry.
There’s also a squirrel and many references to Thorstein Veblen, but to go into these two would only show my ignorance.