cover image The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen

Elizabeth McKenzie. Penguin Press, $25.95 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59420-685-6

A marriage proposal opens this offbeat and winning novel by New Yorker contributor and author McKenzie (Stop That Girl). Thirty-year-old Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, “independent behaviorist... and freelance self,” has only known Paul Vreeland, a 34-year-old neurologist, for three months. This might explain Veblen’s feeling of trouble, “as if rushing toward a disaster,” when she says yes to his marriage proposal. Veblen, a Palo Alto resident, is named for Thorstein Veblen, an economist from the beginning of the 20th century, popularly known for coining the term conspicuous consumption; our heroine Veblen shares some of his concerns and critiques about modern capitalism. Paul, who is finding his footing as a scientist of note and growing ambition (his device for treating traumatic brain injury is fast-tracked by a powerful pharmaceutical company), is anxious to cast off his hippie upbringing and live a life with all the traditional hallmarks of success. We learn the differences between these two at the same time as they do, meeting their eccentric and dysfunctional families for the first time (including Veblen’s mother, Melanie, a narcissist to end all narcissists), and seeing how they respond to situations that grow increasingly out of their control. McKenzie writes with sure-handed perception, and her skillful characterization means that despite all of Veblen’s quirks—she’s an amateur Norwegian translator with an affinity for squirrels—she’s one of the best characters of the year. McKenzie’s funny, lively, addictive novel is sure to be a standout. (Jan.)