Book three and halfway through my challenge to read and review the Baileys shortlist (I’m leaving A Little Life until last as I feel this will be trickiest to get through before 8th June!). I picked up The Portable Veblen next as I love the cover. I will freely admit to being a big fan of squirrels, an animal that features very heavily in this book.
The title is intriguing. What is a Veblen? Well, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is a woman living in California, named after her mother’s hero, Norwegian American economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen. Her boyfriend Paul has just proposed and she’s said yes, but she fears she’s about to make a huge mistake. Why? For a start he bought a trap to put in her attic so he can get rid of the noisy squirrel who disturbs his sleep so many nights. He’s just signed a contract with a huge pharmaceutical company to develop a new medical instrument for use in preventing permanent brain injury as a result of head injuries. He’s essentially a good guy but Veblen worries that he puts too much value on money, material possessions, and she doesn’t trust his boss, the ultra glamorous Cloris Hutmacher, heir to the Hutmacher pharmaceutical dynasty.
This book is a joy to read. There’s just enough quirkiness without going overboard, enough medical and scientific jargon to make Paul’s experiments plausible without becoming too technical to understand. The characters are wonderfully drawn. Both Veblen and Paul’s families have their own brand of dysfunction going on, the effects of which become evident as you read on. Veblen’s hypochondriac mother, Melanie, I found a constant source of amusement (while wondering how on earth Veblen turned out so relatively normal). My only slight criticism is that Veblen and Paul’s friends seemed to only be mentioned in passing, popping up where convenient but otherwise not forming part of their lives. This was kind of resolved by Paul’s embarrassment that his friends are too shallow; Veblen’s fear that her best friend does not like Paul, but I am always a little mistrustful of people in novels who don’t have friends.
In so many books featuring a couple we find ourselves drawn to one side. Somehow McKenzie has ensured that this never happens. For a chapter or two we may feel sympathetic with Veblen, and wonder whether Paul is right for her. Then Paul’s family pop up and we change our minds. Back story is filtered in expertly so that the gaps are filled as we go, not too quickly that we know it all before the end.
Adding to the quirk factor – the appendices at the end of the book. Ever wondered what the Igbo word for squirrel is? It’s osa. And there are 64 other words in languages from Ainu to Zulu. Other gems include Veblen’s mother’s letter to her current physician listing her current medical problems (there are nineteen) and a questionnaire she sends to her daughter in lieu of a normal letter.
This book is intelligent but fun, charming but not lightweight. The quote from Glamour magazine on the back of my copy compares it to Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I would tentatively agree, but I found The Portable Veblen more enjoyable, more hopeful. There is again the discussion regarding the ethical treatment of animals in science (Paul orders live specimens from a list, paying $5 more for a lactating female compared to a pregnant animal). Paul’s unease grows when he finds himself preparing to experiment on humans in Paul’s experiments when he finds himself in charge of several brain damaged war veterans, some more conscious than others, all with families who pin their hopes on an instrument that was designed to prevent conditions, not reverse them.
Halfway through the shortlist this is my favourite so far and I highly recommend it.