Book Review – The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen

I flippin’ loved this book!! And it’s inspired a kind of protectiveness in me that means, if you don’t like this book, we can’t be friends. As promised in the blurb, it is a big-hearted, laugh out loud story that begins with the simple premise of boy-meets-girl, which only belies the complex journey that lies ahead.  Elizabeth McKenzie is a gifted storyteller, penning a novel that embraces life’s imperfections and lays bare the very human struggle between compromise and authenticity.  Encompassing everything from corporate governance to mental health, war to squirrels, this is a story like no other.

Named after Thorstein Veblen (the American economist and socialist and outspoken critic of capitalism), Veblen’s life is completely inspired by his teachings of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and has spent her life shunning materialistic values for a simple life. She is such a likeable character, who unfortunately seems to put everyone’s needs ahead of her own (“Her unvoiced needs were in remission..”).  Her fiance, Paul Vreeland, (equally likeable) is determined to shake off his past and aspires to all of the trappings that the  ‘American Dream’ has to offer.

I had never heard of Thorstein Veblen and being introduced to him was a highlight of this book.  I love when books expose you to new and exciting topics by stealth!  As we speak, I am tracking down a copy of his book ‘The Theory Of The Leisure Class’.  Whether or not you have an interest in economics, McKenzie explores the issues of status and consumerism expertly through the lens of family, relationships and the ego’s quest to conform and conquer.

The characters are so well fleshed out and true to their own natures that I would hardly question their existence. Both Paul and Veblen’s dysfunctional families provide the perfect backdrop to a story of self-discovery and self-determination.  Packed with philosophical observations and moving introspection, it’s no surprise that this novel was short-listed for the Baileys Prize. Witty, intelligent, with a good dollop of quirkiness thrown in, this is a truly original novel that thoroughly deserves five stars.



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