The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie (published today by Fourth Estate, who provided a review copy) is the off-beat and quirky story of the relationship between a newly engaged couple, Veblen and Paul.

Paul and Veblen met at the hospital where they both work (she as an administrator, he as a young neurologist). After a short period of dating they get engaged and start negotiating the tricky ground of building a life for themselves.  The novel follows their trials and tribulations as they plan a wedding, meet each other’s families and adjust their relationship for the long term.  All this plays out against the backdrop of Paul’s work developing a new medical device for a pharmaceutical company whose ethics he comes to question.

Both Veblen and Paul had unusual upbringings.  Veblen grew up as the imaginative and creative child of a controlling hypochondriac mother, who named her after noted economist Thorstein Veblen, creator of the concept of conspicuous consumption.  (The Portable Veblen is also the title of a collection of Veblen’s essays on economics.)  Veblen is fascinated by the man she was named after, and has modelled her life – at her mother’s urging – on a rejection of consumerist culture.  Paul has sought to distance himself from his aging hippie parents, in part because of his difficult relationship with a disabled brother.

These family tensions threaten to tear apart Veblen and Paul’s relationship before it has started.  Much of the story is about the way they navigate the challenges created by the baggage each brings to their relationship.  Ultimately, both learn to accept each other’s flaws and histories, coming to a more realistic view of marriage and a stronger relationship.

If I have a criticism, it’s that Veblen herself is a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  In the film of this book she would be played by Zooey Deschanel.  Veblen wears handmade clothes.  She talks to the local squirrels.  She has breezed into the life of Paul (a man who does Serious Work) and turned it upside down.  She’s a people-pleaser who hates conflict and wants everyone to be happy and everything to be perfect.  But that doesn’t stop The Portable Veblen being an enjoyable, frothy read.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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