As I have made abundantly clear over the course of this blog, I have the bad habit of letting beautiful book covers dictate my purchases. This has served me well plenty of times, but, in a few disappointing cases, appearances can be deceiving. After my experience with The Portable Veblen, I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.
I picked up The Portable Veblen in large part due to its appealing pastel jacket, but also because I read The Theory of the Leisure Class for a Political Theory class during my freshman year of college and found it quite interesting. The book was released without much fanfare, and, going into it without having heard any hype or read any reviews, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
The Portable Veblen is about the impending union between Veblen (a girl, and, yes, Thorstein Veblen is her namesake) and Paul. Veblen is the daughter of a woman that generous people might refer to as eccentric but whom most would classify as insane. She is intelligent but never graduated from college, and she works as a temp at a medical laboratory in Northern California, while translating works from Norwegian (another not-so-subtle reference to her namesake) into English in her spare time.
Paul is a handsome doctor in his mid-thirties, who is in the process of testing a device that has the potential to help veterans recover from traumatic brain injury. He catches the attention of a pharmaceutical heiress who offers to fast track his trial, catapulting him into a high profile, high-stress and low-integrity deal with the Department of Defense.
The book alternates between Veblen and Paul’s experiences, both narrated in the third person, attempting to come to terms with the personality quirks and moral choices of the other. Veblen struggles to accept what she sees as Paul’s decision to “sell out” in working in cahoots with a notoriously sketchy pharmaceutical company. Meanwhile, Paul is trying to work out the extent to which he’ll be able to deal with Veblen’s eccentricities—such as her near-obsession with protecting the squirrels that inhabit their attic and wreak noisy havoc in the middle of the night. As their wedding date draws closer, the two of them begin to wonder—for completely different reasons—whether they are truly meant to be.
The book started strong for me—I breezed through the first 300 or so pages, but after that, I hit a complete standstill. I loved all of Paul’s sections; they featured an absorbing plot and well-developed characters. Veblen and those who surrounded her [apart from Paul]—and especially her mother—were completely insufferable to me, to the point where I could not finish the book. I found Veblen’s mother entirely unrealistic—or at least, for the sake of the children of the world, I hope she is entirely unrealistic—and Veblen’s idiosyncrasies, endearing at the outset, become tedious by the end. A thirty-six year old girl can only befriend so many squirrels before its time to retire that story arc in favor of greener—and hopefully rodent-free–pastures. After this experience, I think finding the most hideously jacketed book in the store might be my best bet for a good read.
Props to the cover illustrator, though.