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The Portable Veblen
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
As regular readers know, I've had a long-standing policy since opening CCLaP to never read literary trade publications or other litblogs, because I want to avoid as much as possible knowing what the Next Big Hot Thing is among publishing insiders when choosing which books to read and review here. And while this was originally done because I want my book choices to more closely mirror the way that the average CCLaP reader picks their own books -- through natural curiosity based simply on a book's cover art and synopsis -- I've discovered over the years that there's another benefit to this, which is that most Next Big Hot Things turn out to be that way because they have a particular gimmick that makes them easy to market to a mainstream audience, or because the publishing company has paid an obscene amount of money to acquire it, but that the books themselves tend to be only so-so in actual literary quality, the kind of novels that you would normally say, "Meh, yeah, that was okay, whatever," if not for the insane amount of hype that went into promoting it.
And so it is that I'm always surprised when finishing a random pick and only afterwards learning that it was the Next Big Hot Thing of this particular season, like is the case today with Elizabeth McKenzie's genteel domestic dramedy The Portable Veblen; but so too it is that I'm actually not that surprised, because today's book is exactly like what I just described, a gimmicky one that's easy to market, but that turned out to be an only so-so actual reading experience. And that gimmick in a nutshell is that it's written in this extremely cutesy-wootsy, rootsy-tootsy, adorably quirky, quirkily adorable style; or in other words, it's the literary equivalent of the film Amelie, which I know has a certain amount of you now immediately saying "Awwwwwwww!!!" (hence the easily marketable part of its Next Big Hot Thingness), but as a serious reader just fills me with an undeniable amount of eye-rolling dread. In fact, I think it's fair to call this a manic pixie dream girl story, because it certainly fits all the classic definitions of one; and the only reason it's not being lambasted in public for being so is that, unlike most of these types of tales, it was written by a female author, not as wish fulfillment by a male one.
Although that said, let me immediately point out that that's a bit of an unfair generalization; for in the book's defense, the MPDG in question here is actually the main character, not some two-dimensional love interest who only exists to help fulfill the male lead character's "hero's journey," and as such she is a much more complex and darker character than the typical MPDG. But that notwithstanding, I found this a real slog to get through, with the kind of simplistic, fairytale-like vernacular that typically makes me grit my teeth when coming across it in a book specifically designed for grown-ups. (And note that I haven't said a word about the actual storyline, because there simply isn't anything to say -- it's the story of two young people who marry and buy a house, and all the things that happen to them as they marry and buy a house -- so it's not like some amazing plot is saving this book from the cloyingly sweet style in which it was written.) It wasn't bad, don't get me wrong, which is why it's still getting a decent score; but like I said earlier, I would most characterize this novel with the sentence, "Meh, yeah, that was okay, whatever," which will undoubtedly make it a disappointment to those who bought into the Next Big Hot Thing hype and were expecting something a lot better. Buyer beware.
Out of 10: 8.0