Elizabeth McKenzie’s irresistible new novel, “The Portable Veblen,” is the story of two lovers, their dysfunctional families and a very handsome squirrel. McKenzie reads Jan. 28 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
‘The Portable Veblen’
by Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press, 430 pp., $26
Those who think novels about love are all alike might want to spend some time in the pages of Elizabeth McKenzie’s irresistibly comedic “The Portable Veblen,” in which a premarital misunderstanding is brought about when a man overhears and misinterprets his fiancée, who is engaged in soulful conversation with a squirrel. (Tolstoy never thought of that one, did he?)
That fiancée is 30-year-old Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, of Palo Alto, introduced early to us as an “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood and various interferences since.” Named for a brilliant, eccentric economist, she works for pay in a research office and for free as a translator of Norwegian; enchanted by the way that “when you enter the cavern of another language, you could leave certain people behind, for they had no interest in following you.” One of those people is, surely, her hypochondriac, wildly dramatic mother, Melanie.
Veblen’s the sort of almost-too-endearing character who in the wrong hands could become unbearably quirked out, but McKenzie balances her with the character of her fiancé: a kind, conventional neurologist named Paul Vreeland, who only qualifies as an oddball because of his impossibly free-to-be-you-and-me family. His parents, marijuana growers whose business was frequently raided throughout Paul’s childhood, speak to each other as if in a perpetual therapy session.
The author of “The Portable Veblen” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
The course of true love never did run smooth (Shakespeare never wrote about squirrels, did he?), and indeed the road leading up to Veblen and Paul’s wedding day is a rocky one. Both sets of parents are impossible, in their own special and utterly believable way. (I particularly liked McKenzie’s sly depiction of Melanie, a woman who “tended to freeze up and ignore compliments and love, and court instead all the miffs and tiffs she could gather round, in a perpetual powwow of pity”). Meanwhile, there’s drama at Paul’s workplace, where he’s trying to develop a device to treat traumatic battlefield head trauma, and then there’s that handsome squirrel, seen by Paul as an invasive critter and Veblen as a potential friend.
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McKenzie, in her second novel (her first, “McGregor Tells the World” was published in 2007; she’s also the author of the short story collection “Stop That Girl”), has an appeallingly light, playful touch here. You don’t have time to worry about whether the squirrel-obsessed Veblen is mentally ill or merely eccentric; the story whooshes along, stopping for moments of clever satire (medical marketing is a frequent target, most notably in a trade show touting “coordination of the pre-wounded” as an emerging market), character detail, and the occasional odd photograph. (I don’t know why McKenzie included a photo of an extra chicken burrito offered to Veblen, but it feels like the kind of detail the character would appreciate: Veblen may not be real, but the burrito is. Or was.)
Ultimately, the squirrel plays a key role in the book’s satisfying ending (and I don’t mean its appendix listing 65 different words for “squirrel,” though that’s satisfying in its own way, too). “The Portable Veblen” is about how very squirrelly family dysfunction can be — and about how, as many of us never get tired of reading, love sometimes can conquer all.