Choosing a really great love story to get myself in the mood for Valentine’s Day is a little like trying to pick out the most delicious piece of candy in that heart-shaped box. Granted, all romantic comedies follow the predictable formula of boy meets girl, etc., etc. , just as all that candy is enrobed in chocolate. However, it’s what’s under the chocolate shell that separates the ordinary from the sublime.
When I choose candy, I want something unexpected I can sink my teeth into, like a sliver of candied orange peel or a sea-salted caramel. Likewise, in a love story, I’m looking for one that has some substance and a few delectable surprises. “The Portable Veblen,” by Elizabeth McKenzie, provides both.
This novel gets its unique flavor by mixing together a pair of seemingly mismatched lovers, two sets of eccentric and potentially poisonous in-laws-to-be, a nasty Big Pharma subplot, a smattering of philosophy, and a very communicative squirrel. In less talented hands, these elements could give one a bad case of mental indigestion, but McKenzie is a superb writer. Her characters are complex and compelling, and their imperfections make me love them all the more. She’s also a master at plotting and manages to seamlessly weave together the various back stories, the engrossing subplot, and a little magical realism, all the while moving the arc of the story forward. McKenzie also has a finely tuned ear for both language and humor.
“The Portable Veblen” cuts right to the chase, as our 30-something lovers, Veblen Admunsen-Hovda and Paul Vreeland, become engaged after brief courtship. Like her namesake and moral compass, Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian-American economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen finds comfort in simplicity. She lives in a little cottage she’s transformed from a dilapidated wreck on the outskirts of Palo Alto, California.
A classic underachiever, she supports herself by working as a temp in the neurology department of the Stanford University Medical School. But her real interest lies in her work as a volunteer translator for something called the Norwegian Diaspora Project. As we discover, Veblen translates more than Norwegian. She is a compassionate, introspective young woman whose life has been spent focused on the needs of others, so it’s little wonder she has yet to find herself. She finds solace in the natural world that has always provided her with a refuge from the complexities of her life. And she adores squirrels, especially the one who lives in her attic and seems to be trying to communicate with her.
Paul, her brainy fiancé, is an ambitious, driven neurologist, who’s been lured away from a prestigious research fellowship at Stanford by Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, where he will head a clinical trial for a tool he’s invented. This device is much like a hole punch, designed for use by battlefield medics to quickly relieve the cranial pressure of soldiers with head trauma. His experience with Hutmacher will create the ethical dilemma that drives the novel’s subplot. Paul’s new job allows him to indulge in the trappings of success – a snazzy new car and, for Veblen, “a diamond so large it would be a pill to avoid for those who easily gag.” But he craves more: a boat, a big house and a posh wedding. Oh, yes, he also wants to trap and relocate the squirrel in Veblen’s attic, whose nocturnal scurryings rob him of sleep.
As you can see, conflicts abound, and one can’t help but wonder whether Paul and Veblen have anything in common to create a bond. It doesn’t take long to discover the answer: both are trying to escape their damaging families and a find a way to be free to be themselves. Family-wise, Veblen’s been dealt a double whammy. Her father, Rudger, who terrified her as a child during their brief visits, now resides in a psychiatric hospital. Her mother, Melanie, remarried to the nice, but ineffectual Linus Duffy, is a possessive, manipulative narcissist and monumental hypochondriac.
Veblen has spent her whole life making excuses for her mother’s tantrums by translating the woman’s odd behavior. “When her mother yelled at someone in a restaurant and stomped out, Veblen would remain behind a moment and tell the waiter, ‘What my mother meant was that being corrected on what type of salad dressing to order reminded her of being scolded all the time by her mother, who was really mean.’’’ No wonder Veblen talks to squirrels and secretly takes antidepressants!
Paul’s parents, Bill and Marion, although much saner and kinder than Veblen’s, have scarred him, as well. Hippies, they raised him on a farm where they grew pot, fended off DEA agents, and roamed around in the nude. To complicate life further, Paul has grown up living in the shadow of his brain damaged older brother, Justin, a difficult, unpredictable child in an adult body, to whom his parents have devoted themselves. As a result, Paul feels jealous, unloved and unappreciated, and has reacted by distancing himself from his family. Because of this fascinating group of characters, the novel’s various set pieces that revolve around the classic “Meet the Parents” and the other rites of passage an engaged couple must endure are both hysterically funny and horrifying. As the squirrel predicts early on, “There’s a terrible alchemy coming.”
Which brings me to the squirrel. This fluffy little fellow Veblen finds so attractive certainly provides more than a touch of whimsy. We get the idea he has been with Veblen all her life because he sees in her immense promise. As he says to her, “I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted, and you don’t know it yet, but you are all of these.”
But I believe the squirrel’s presence serves a larger purpose: he is the fulcrum upon which this seesaw of a novel balances. He not only symbolizes the differences that have the potential to tear the lovers apart, but also serves much like a Native American spirit guide and, in the end, he will provide the catalyst for Paul’s redeeming moment.
So yes, “The Portable Veblen” is a squirrely book about squirrely people, but it is one that will satisfy your craving for a deliciously funny, romantic, comic novel that also feeds your mind.