Pick of the Week: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

veblenI loved this unique, unexpected novel. It starts out almost like a fairy tale, and its heroine, Veblen (don’t ask – read the book) feels just like a fairy-tale character: unconventional, gentlehearted … and she talks to squirrels. Sweet Veblen is moving through her life, working as a temp at Stanford’s School of Medicine, taking care of her little house in Palo Alto, and translating Norwegian for fun. Then she meets Paul Vreeland, an ambitious doctor whose research project has been picked up by a giant pharmaceutical company, and her world suddenly changes. They have a whirlwind romance, followed by a marriage proposal, and Veblen finds herself sharing her quiet life and her eccentric family with Paul. As it turns out, Paul’s family isn’t exactly normal either – and his sponsorship by Big Pharma isnmckenzie’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This book combines the oddest subjects – pharmaceutical fraud, suffering war veterans, mental illness, dysfunctional families – but it does so brilliantly, and with humor and sensitivity. (There are even pictures illustrating various chapters, and they’re hilarious.) The characters are all kind of wacky, not always in a good way, but you just keep rooting for Veblen and Paul, their relationship, and their messed-up families. In the end, this is a hopeful story, about how we can all come to terms with our past and do the right thing. If you’re stuck in the winter doldrums right now, pick up this book. It might not warm your toes, but it could definitely warm your heart.

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