Reading the Bailey’s Prize: The Portable Veblen

veblenThe 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.

  7 comments for “Reading the Bailey’s Prize: The Portable Veblen

  1. May 26, 2016 at 10:45 am

    This has actually encouraged me re: Portable Veblen; I like the subtlety of the emotional beats in the quotes you’ve pulled out!

    • May 26, 2016 at 3:28 pm

      Thanks, that’s kind of what I was going for. It’s described as such a quirky, funny book, but the emotional issues felt very real to me. It’s a nice mix!

  2. May 26, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book… and I’m intrigued by the squirrels!

  3. June 3, 2016 at 6:48 am

    I really disliked the first half of the book and loved the last bit. Great review though! I hope you don’t mind by I linked back to your review so my readers can read a good positive review

    • June 3, 2016 at 7:27 pm

      I don’t mind at all, I appreciate the link. Sorry the first half didn’t work for you, I liked it immediately. I’m surprised you kept going!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Readers' High Tea

Based in Romania, reading all over the world. Mostly fiction, some memoires and a little bit of poetry.

Bookish Brews

A book blog and a celebration of diverse books and authors (with a side of your favorite brew)

C.A. Hughes Book Reviews

The literary journeys of a 20-something, bilingual, elementary school teacher.

Rabeeah Reads

a book blog

There's always room for one more...

Lost in Storyland

I read, breathe, and live in bookish worlds.


Book Reviews


"Books are a uniquely portable magic" - Stephen King

Lola Et La Vie

*somewhere to collect my (mostly) bookish thoughts*

%d bloggers like this: