Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
Finalist for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction
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 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.
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 deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Calling The Portable Veblen a quirky love story shortchanges this brilliant, curious novel about two iconoclasts trying to figure out how to make a life together. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda lives in a shabby Palo Alto bungalow and scrapes together a living so she can focus on her passions: translating Norwegian texts, contemplating radical economist Thorstein Veblen’s work, and communicating with squirrels. Physician Paul Vreeland revels in defying his hippie parents, partnering with a ruthless pharmaceutical heiress on his invention for treating brain trauma in soldiers. We adored the twists and turns of Elizabeth McKenzie’s unconventional storytelling and cherished every second we got to spend with her one-of-a-kind characters.
A marriage proposal opens this offbeat and winning novel by New Yorker contributor and author McKenzie (Stop That Girl). Thirty-year-old Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, "independent behaviorist... and freelance self," has only known Paul Vreeland, a 34-year-old neurologist, for three months. This might explain Veblen's feeling of trouble, "as if rushing toward a disaster," when she says yes to his marriage proposal. Veblen, a Palo Alto resident, is named for Thorstein Veblen, an economist from the beginning of the 20th century, popularly known for coining the term conspicuous consumption; our heroine Veblen shares some of his concerns and critiques about modern capitalism. Paul, who is finding his footing as a scientist of note and growing ambition (his device for treating traumatic brain injury is fast-tracked by a powerful pharmaceutical company), is anxious to cast off his hippie upbringing and live a life with all the traditional hallmarks of success. We learn the differences between these two at the same time as they do, meeting their eccentric and dysfunctional families for the first time (including Veblen's mother, Melanie, a narcissist to end all narcissists), and seeing how they respond to situations that grow increasingly out of their control. McKenzie writes with sure-handed perception, and her skillful characterization means that despite all of Veblen's quirks she's an amateur Norwegian translator with an affinity for squirrels she's one of the best characters of the year. McKenzie's funny, lively, addictive novel is sure to be a standout.