This interesting, thoughtful, layered book is a perceptive and incisive look at modern times, relationships, military clinical trials, dysfunctional families along with being an exceptionally delightful book to read.
It begins with a quirky engagement between Paul Vreeland and Veblen Amundsen-Hovda—and though the book centers around their impending nuptials, it really couldn’t be less about the wedding. McKenzie is a truly skilled writer, bringing in a wide array of elements: from a social critique of the medical trial world and bigwig Pharma companies, to a more human-drama look at dealing with dysfunctional families and learning what it takes to accept yourself as part of one of those families.
Paul and Veblen are an interesting couple, to say the least. Veblen (named for real-life economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who is basically a character in this book in his own right,) is content with her life, modest though it may be. She lives in a small cottage and considers herself a “freelance self,” doing amateur Norwegian translation projects and some administrative work at Stanford, which is where she happens to meet Paul, a doctor researching traumatic brain injury. Paul has greater ambitions though, his sights set on a higher, more materialistic kind of lifestyle and he jumps at the chance to take his potentially lifesaving prototype to clinical trials when he gets scouted by the pharmaceutical company Hutmacher.
In alternating chapters we follow Veblen as she realizes that she can’t just ride along the waves of life anymore; there’s a future ahead of her that she has to make decisions about and plan for. Then, we follow Paul as he tries to climb the ladder of corporate America only to find that he’s spiraling downwards, losing touch with his ideals that he’s almost forgotten he cares about.
Things are further complicated by each of their families. Without getting into it too much: Veblen’s mother is a hypochondriac who is probably also bipolar, her father has severe PTSD and is now institutionalized, Paul’s parents led a freewheeling, drug-induced hippie lifestyle that led to poor parenting, and he has a mentally challenged older brother named Justin. It’s a bit much. I can honestly say I’m glad I didn’t grow up in either one of their families.
If you’ve looked into this book at all yet, or even just looked at the cover, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What’s up with the squirrels?” Before I read it, I thought this book was overflowing with talking squirrels from the way people wrote about it in reviews. That is NOT AT ALL what is going on here! I bring up these tree-dwelling critters not to say how cute and fluffy they are (honestly, squirrels have black, depthless eyes that scare me a bit) but rather to go deeper. The squirrels are an important window into Veblen’s state of mind. As the book goes on and her anxiety over her mother’s issues, whether she should marry Paul or not, and the future in general begin to gnaw at her, she turns to the squirrels that seem to overrun her Palo Alto neighborhood more and more, telling them all about her problems and seeing answers in the twitch of their tails or the way they seem to watch and chatter at her. To me, this felt like a reversion to her childhood state of fantasy, which was probably a sort of defense mechanism to get away from her overbearing and manipulative mother. Not only does she have that to contend with, but as her mother likes to mention and then apologize for, her father has passed on genes that might make Veblen at risk for mental illness. What is really going on in Veblen's mind? Is she on the brink of some sort of breakdown? The light, frivolity of the language in this book does not downplay its darker moments—and it sure does have them. The potential for our parents to inflict some sort of lasting damage upon us is strong and in this book it’s almost like the characters never had a chance. Rising above the mistakes of their parents is one thing. Fixing their own mistakes is a whole 'nother story.
While Veblen grew up tending to her mother and explaining her erratic behavior to other people, she was loved and cared for, though I wouldn’t say she was given every opportunity in life. She is definitely an optimist though and has found a way to be happy with her status quo. The only problem is that Paul has introduced change and forward movement and she doesn’t quite know how to reconcile that. It’s like finishing the puzzle and then finding an extra piece that doesn't fit anywhere.
Paul forged his own way in life, no thanks to his parents, who were either too busy with their lifestyle or later, too busy with Justin to have time for Paul. He’s determined to create a better, more stable and ordered life for himself now that he’s in charge of it. The exploration of the clinical trial world and the industry of military medicine is a really interesting part of this book and among other social arguments, it seems to point at the classic gender divide: Paul is worried about corporate concerns, climbing the ladder, making a name for himself professionally, bringing home the bacon, so to speak. Veblen seems to be more concerned with family matters, like her mom and dad, and is especially in tune with her natural surroundings, even at ease with the squirrel living in her attic. McKenzie proves to be more crafty than gender norms though, digging deep into the roots of each character’s respective childhoods and showing how they are in fact quite the opposite.
Paul may have resented his free-wheeling upbringing, but several incidents in his childhood cause him to have a strong moral compass which might come in handy against big pharmaceutical companies and their lack of ethical boundaries. And Veblen at her core firmly aligns with the philosophy of Thorstein himself, his criticism of capitalism and what he termed “conspicuous consumption.” You won’t find this forced down your throat in any difficult way, instead there are witty but almost throwaway remarks about the wording of advertisements and Veblen thinks agitatedly to herself about the misunderstood nature of her namesake.
This book is so beautifully written, you’ll forget that McKenzie is cramming so many themes and ideas into your head. You probably won’t even notice they’re there until you realize you’re thinking about them! The mark of a truly great writer is one that can whip up a good story, while at the same time giving you something interesting to think about, something that might enhance your worldview or, if you really get a good one, even change it.
Find out more about Elizabeth McKenzie:
Get your copy here:
THE PORTABLE VEBLEN
Find out more about the publisher, Penguin Press (Penguin Random House)
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.