The Portable Veblen is my favorite book of the year, so far, and easily my favorite among the Bailey’s Prize nominees I’ve read.
I was worried going in that this book was going to be too cute for me. I’m not a fan of books that are self-consciously quirky – just give me a good story, good writing, and good characters please. Veblen had all of the above.
This is the rare book that found me wanting to highlight sentences on every other page.
Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is a young woman who is temping at a Stanford University neurology lab and translates Norwegian in her spare time. She’s passionate about the work of her namesake, economist Thorstein Veblen. She lives in a tiny little house in Palo Alto, she talks to her mother every day, and her father lives in a psychiatric facility in Paso Robles (I love California so all these places mean something to me). She talks to squirrels.
Oh, and her boyfriend Paul just proposed to her.
What I loved most about this book is it explores the process of falling in love and being engaged. Are you making the right decision? Is this person perfect for you or the best you feel you can do? Is anyone perfect? Are you? Are you even worthy of being loved by someone?
If these things didn’t go through your mind when you were engaged, they went through mine, and this book brought back a lot of the excitement and the stresses of my engagement year. Maybe it’s easy for some people. I have a hard time deciding what I want for dinner most nights, and this was marriage.
Veblen and Paul both have difficult childhoods that shape how they feel about themselves, and what it means to love and be loved. Veblen struggles to be a good daughter to her mother and father, while Paul struggles to separate himself from his family in every possible way. I sympathized with both.
Was it arrogant to think a squirrel was following you around? Or to think your parents cared about you? And yet – with those well-marked whiskers, and that topcoat, and the notable scruff, a squirrel who cared and followed you everywhere – wouldn’t that be nice?
Paul and Veblen have a lot to learn about each other, and which comes out as they get to know both families. For example, Paul looks like a super nice guy until you see how he treats his disabled brother and his hippie parents. But there’s a whole childhood there that has to be considered.
Another big part of being engaged is thinking about attitudes towards finances and career. Where will this person be ten years down the road? Do you share the same values? How you handle money makes a big difference in a relationship. Amidst the crazy, quirkiness of this book, Paul and Veblen have to deal with some pretty complicated issues.
It was a moment in which she sensed unplumbed depths in him, and a minefield of shallows in herself. She’d have to listen to it again. To everything again.
If, on the surface, I didn’t have much in common with Veblen or Paul, there were times in this book I felt I could be reading about myself. I identified with Paul’s competitive nature and need to prove himself, and I identified with Veblen’s fantastic view of the world. And some of the family dynamics in this book hit pretty close to home.
Sometimes her reactions seemed to happen in slow motion, like old, calloused manatees moving through murky water. At least, that’s how she’d tried to explain it to the psychiatrist who dispensed her medications. Sometimes she wondered if she had some kind of processing disorder. Or maybe it was just a defense mechanism. One could see she was bruised by all the dodging that comes of the furtive meeting of one’s needs.
If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that the evil-corporation storyline gets a bit over the top at times, and the character of Cloris is more of a stereotype than a character. But in a book that gives us Veblen, Paul, Melanie, Marion, Justin, Rudgear, Linus, and Bill, I think I can forgive that.
All that, and there’s squirrels too. I don’t mind telling you, I don’t see squirrels in quite the same way anymore.