The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie is a quirky, quick little novel and has a number of features which make it a worthwhile read. Veblen Amundson-Hovda was named for Thorstein Veblen which sent her into an in-depth pursuit of the philosopher/economist’s life (a misfit) and his work (still read and respected). Veblen is a young woman whose life has been informed by her namesake. (Hard to come up with a good nickname for Veblen.) As a result of her immersion in Veblen’s work she is not a “material girl”. She embraces a simple life. She is learning Norwegian (Thorstein Veblen is Norwegian.)
Paul Vreeland, a young neurologist who has invented a field instrument to try to save brain damaged soldiers, meets Veblen and finds they are a comfortable fit. But it’s early days. There is so much they don’t know about each other. Paul is enjoying his increasing success and he has been taken up by some very wealth Big Pharmaceutical people.
Despite their attraction there are signs that Veblen might have been too hasty about taking this relationship to the next level. For one thing there is the very expensive engagement ring which Veblen cannot bring herself to wear some days. There is Paul’s proposal to hold their wedding and reception at his patron’s glass and steel estate. Veblen has started to talk to the handsome squirrel that lives behind (and sometimes in the attic of) her charming cottage that she lovingly restored from a near ruin. She worries that she might have inherited mental illness from her biological father. Paul comes home with a have-a-heart trap to catch the squirrel so they can release it far away. What will Paul say if he learns that Veblen talks to squirrels?
Then there are their families, each unique, one might say dysfunctional, although in very different ways. Will their differences, their backgrounds, and current events in their lives tear these two apart or, somehow, bring them together? What will win out, materialism or Veblen’s offbeat blend of naturalistic minimalism? There are things to think about after reading The Portable Veblen and, although the choices do not require deep thought to decipher and verbalize, choosing a path that is authentic can take us a lifetime.
By Nancy Brisson