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book review

McKenzie shows manic pixie love in ‘The Portable Veblen’

Veronica Grech for the boston globe

The idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, first identified nearly a decade ago by film critic Nathan Rabin as that bubbly cinematic sprite that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” stands out as one of modern cinema’s more visible tropes.

Since Katherine Hepburn beguiled Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby,” a small battalion of MPDGs have induced in several generations of moviegoers a spell of wonder — and popularized some very strange ideas about women.

In “The Portable Veblen,” Elizabeth McKenzie catches the MPDG by her gossamer wings and pins her to a dissection tray, revealing the societal pathos thrumming just beneath her dewy skin.


Set in Northern California, the novel is a winning satire of contemporary mores, the sort typically found in the rarefied worlds of the coastal elite. McKenzie has written a funny, deeply critical book with the heart of a cynic and the texture of a soufflé. If “The Portable Veblen” has a flaw, it is that its caricatures are so on the nose as to make the reader hope to flee the human race.

Like the novel, our titular protagonist, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, can easily be mistaken for breezy. A self-described “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self,” she talks to squirrels and kisses flowers. One of her passions is her rental home, a fixer-upper fairy cottage in Palo Alto and that Silicon Valley town’s last remnant of affordable housing. Another is her Norwegian translation work, an avocation she supports by temping. A third is her intellectual life, which she nurtures with rangy works of literature and leftist criticism, including and especially the philosophical writings of Thorstein Veblen, the witty economist who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and the man for whom she is named.


Veblen’s boyfriend, Paul Vreeland, is a tall, handsome young doctor. Like Veblen, he is a type, in this case, of the wealthy bohemians David Brooks describes in his 2001 work of sociological twaddle, “Bobos in Paradise,” a book Veblen insists Paul read. Like Brooks’s bobos, he embraces authenticity — i.e. his counterculturey girlfriend — and shuns the consumerist trappings of the vulgar masses. He dresses in Patagonia and dreams of splendiferous, tasteful wealth, reflected in his desire for a house in a gated community to keep the rabblement out.

Like sensitive, soulful, and privileged young men the world over, he finds a woman with Veblen’s combination of looks and inscrutable quirks intoxicating.

“ ‘You know that thing you do, when you run out of the room after you’ve turned off the light?’ he said.

‘You’ve seen me?’

‘It’s very cute.’

‘Oh!’ To be considered cute when one hasn’t tried is nice.

‘Remember when you showed me the shadow of the hummingbird on the curtain?’


‘I loved that.’

‘I know, it was right in the middle, like it was framing itself.’ ”

After a brief courtship, Paul and Veblen get engaged, but it is only a matter of time before their perfect, hummingbird love is put to the test. Paul’s altruistic research on brain trauma lands him in the hands of a defense contractor, whose promises that Paul will become wealthy while helping the human race are so seductively evil that Satan himself could take notes.


Meanwhile, Veblen must come to terms with her upbringing at the hands of a mother so uniquely terrible that Dostoyevsky’s maxim about unhappy families seems wholly inadequate here.

So vividly awful is the character Melanie Amundsen-Hovda that she could require sensitive readers to seek therapy. A failed academic, hypochondriac, and certifiable narcissist, she terrorizes her daughter with imaginary illnesses and copious amounts of guilt. One childhood scene sums up Veblen’s home life: “Red and weepy, like a timeworn tomato, Melanie sat wrapped in her old robe. She wanted to look horrible, Veblen thought, to encourage pity. ‘I’m supposed to pull myself together for your sake,’ Melanie said. ‘So I suppose you’ll have a wonderful time. . . ’ ”

Will Paul see through the nefarious defense contractor? Will Veblen escape the pernicious clutches of her mother? The reader will race to find out. “The Portable Veblen” should prove equally enjoyable for bobos, manic pixie dream girls, and those who love them.


By Elizabeth McKenzie

Penguin, 430 pp., $26

Eugenia Williamson can be reached eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.