When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

When I arrived to England more than 4 months ago I only had two books with me, both of them in Spanish, and both of them intended to keep me company while travelling. But once I settled down I realised that my recent move was the perfect opportunity to request books to publishers that could not afford to send me their books all the way to Spain. So, seeing that everyone was showing off their new review copies of Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, I wrote to Atlantic Books for a review copy. I soon got a reply from Sophie Walker kindly informing me that they were not publishing that book in the UK, but they had many others that may be of interest to me. As I browsed their fantastic catalogue I found three books that I had to read: Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers, Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright, and When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy. Sophie was amazing, and upon knowing of my recent move kindly offered to send me copies of the three books. I have to say that I did not feel home until I those threen novels reached me. So, thanks Sophie and Atlantic Books for being so awesome.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is Meena Kandasamy’s second novel, following the critically acclaimed The Gypsy Goddess (2014), and it has taken the UK by storm with is crude and realistic description of domestic violence. The unnamed narrator of the novel tells her story in first person as she marries an educated and socially respected man who hits her, rapes her, and causes her all kinds of pain, damage, and vexation behind closed doors. The power of this novel resides on its challenging of myths and prejudices about domestic violence by portraying the abuse in a young, educated, and successful couple in contemporary India. He is a university professor, a Communist who has a personal crusade against all the evils of this world, especially his wife. She is 26, an only child, and a writer. Together, they look like the perfect, liberal couple ready to take the world by storm, except that like all abusers, he makes sure his wife stays home under false pretences and excuses. The fact that he is a university professor allows him to justify his abuse with all kinds of postcolonial and postmodern theories that at the same time work as an education for his wife:

When I hear ‘your own good’ I am reduced to being a child again. I do not argue any more. I go silent.

The abuser’s arguments belong to that side of left-wing politics that refuse to acknowledge the patriarchy, and the subjection of women in contemporary society. Feminism is not a valid discourse, and feminists are portrayed as difficult women who are making up problems that get in the way of the real, left-wing (masculine) fight. As part of their strategy, these discourses look to ridicule women while erasing any role models, or artistic representations that may validate female lived experience. As part of this power play, the narrator explores Althusser’s strangling of this wife, and his consequent explanation of the act. Meanwhile, female authors and artists are constantly devalued by her husband, receiving the same treatment society and history has saved for them in the past centuries:

I see, it is no longer fashionable to be mad. Depression is the word, isn’t it? Three inches of cleavage, two books of poetry, plenty of sex and depression – that’s all it takes to make a woman a famous writer. Beginning from Sylvia Plath to Kmala Das, that is the only trajectory you have all followed.

Kandasamy is not shy in the portrayal of domestic violence, but she does not let her prose fall prey to voyeurism. Just as domestic violence victims systematically accept the escalation of abuse, so does the narrator and author, hence allowing for a masterful description of attacks like the following:

My hair is gathered up in a bunch in his hand now. He is lifting me by my hair alone. All the blood is rushing to my head, my thighs fight to feel the hard wood of the chair. I am in pain. He drags me from the table and into the bedroom.

What comes next is marital rape, a crime that until very recently had not been recognised as such in many states (Spain one of them). And afterwards come days and months of abuse, and the narrator’s mixed feelings about it. She knows that she is worth more than an abusive husband, she has the education to recognise what is happening to her. She is a feminist. She is an author. She is extremely clever. But that does not save her, or any woman, from becoming a domestic violence victim. Her family also knows, but they insist on her staying in a marriage that turned violent just one month after the wedding for fear of being judged. Kandasamy offers a magnificent portrayal of contemporary Indian society as a troublesome space, where traditions and new ways of seeing life are crashing, exactly the same way they are doing in the West, especially regarding gender issues:

Tradition never goes out of fashion. Remaining in public memory, it wears new clothes. In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes. The time it takes to fix a quick dinner. The time it takes to do the dishes. The time it takes to commute to work. This is the official statistic – the deaths the police do not even bother trying to hide in semantics. The real truth lies int he wailing that never ceases at the burns wards of hospitals.

We learn in the very first chapter of the book that the narrator’s story has a happy ending, at least as happy as expected in these circumstances. The novel is her take on events that seem to be fluid and plastic depending on the ideology of the narrator. Authorship, as she highlights, is something that should be taken very seriously. Domestic violence is not something that happens to uneducated, poor women. It is part of the patriarchy, it can happen to all and any of us. It can alienate us from society, even from our beloved ones.  It is ignored, dismissed, hidden, covered, and even justified. It is terrorism potentially targeting half of humankind, making all women potential victims, no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, ethnic background, education, or body. It can happen to me. Or to you. And that is why When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife will be the most important book published in 2017.

The amazing Naomi Frisby from The Writes of Woman recently interviewed Kandasamy for her Youtube Channel. Enjoy!

 

meena.jpgMeena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms. Militancy, and the critically acclaimed novel, The Gypsy Goddess. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics, and her academic interests include critical pedagogy and linguistic nationalism.

You can learn more about her here.

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. You can vote for it here, by writing a review slightly over 100 words about TWO books, each by a different publishers, from the 150 The Guardian has selected.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

How to be Both by Ali Smith became an instant success after its publication 2014. Back then all I could see on my Twitter feeds was praise for an author that I had never Heard about. So, after seeing that her latest book Autumn has also been welcomed with equal enthusiast for people I trust, I decided to finally read How to be Both. I borrowed this book from the Bristol Central Library.

“Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were”.

How to be Both is a novel about fluidity and ambiguity. As the title suggests, a constant theme in both parts of the book is the characters’ ability to evade categories set by society and construct their identity all by themselves. Liminality, those spaces that are both and none at the same time, becomes key for George, an English teenager that has recently lost her mother, and Francescho, a Renaissance artist struggling to become a well-known painter.

The novel is all play, a game between Smith and the reader that will fascinate and surprise in equal measure. The book is divided in two halves, each of them dedicated to a different character. As a metaphysical experiment, there are two version of the book: One that present’s George story first, and another one that presents Francescho’s story first. No matter which, a quick look at Goodreads shows that readers prefer the first half no matter the edition they had. Not happy with this game, Smith also plays the reader for some pages until we discover that George is actually a young girl who is facing the rest of her life with her mother while trying to figure out who she is. As she explores sexual identity, female desire, and growing up, George presents us with a portrait of her mother as an inspiring woman obsessed with creativity and art. So much so, that she visits the same painting so often, George feels the need to visit too after her death.

That painting is no other than Francescho’s. But again, things are not what they seem, and Francescho is a young woman in disguise trying to become a painter in Renaissance Italy. Hidden under big clothes and a lot of banding is the body of a woman that defies social conventions and belongs to another time. As her male friends take her to brothels and her secret is discovered by the city’s prostitutes, she also discovers her sexuality letting her desire roam free in exchange for a drawing. It is in Francecho’s experience that Smith finally gets to fully develop the theme of ambiguity presenting the reader with very interesting questions about identity, how society plays an enormous role in how we define ourselves and the freedom that comes from liminality, ambiguity and letting yourself remain unlabeled while trying to experience life to the fullest.

“It was all : it was nothing : it was more than enough”

How to be Both is my first Ali Smith but it will not be the last. Reading such a complex work could be considered a difficult and daunting task, but Smith’s prose is so beautiful and perfectly constructed that reading just flows. I read this book while I was writing and editing, and I found myself constantly thinking about the story, and pulled to the book every night, no matter the hour.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud had been on my radar for a long time. So much so that when I decided to do some second-hand bookshop in Cardiff last year I knew I would buy a copy of the book if I found it. For those of you who kept recommending the book to me: Thank You.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs tells the story of Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged teacher who sees her conventional American class and life disrupted with the arrival of a new pupil from France. Nora describes herself in the first lines of the book as ‘a good girl’, and that is probably the description that best fits her until the following question is posted: What makes a good girl and why? In this first chapter we learn about her anger and her frustration with her life. If she has been a good daughter, a good colleague, and a good woman in general, why did this happen to her? Of course ‘this’ is the whole of the book. Messud is a master at describing psychological processes, and the novel focuses on Nora’s internal life and her evolution. But before we learn more about the year the incident that changed her life forever, she graces us with one of the most intense, truthful and brief takes on anger expressed by a female character in contemporary literature:

Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.

This anger floods her story like a hemorrhage she cannot stop when she reconstructs what happened between her and the student’s family. Because I do not wish to spoil the novel to anyone, I will leave it here, and instead I will focus on why so many people have considered Nora a unlikable character. For me she was a heroine, but I am the one who takes Rebecca’s side on the Du Maurier classic. As a female character, Nora uses the narration in first person to vent her anger and her frustrations, and she directly links her situation to the fact that she is a woman and has been socialized to be quiet, silent, kind, show acceptance, and care for others. But above all, she highlights how society teaches women to repress negative feelings, and most importantly to not show the in public:

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

Despite the importance of these feelings, Messud gives Nora a rich internal life, and her ambitions to be an artist also play a key role in the narrative. Even though she earns her living as a teacher, Nora has always wanted to be an artist but saw her will and determination crashed by society and her environment. Sadly this is a too common situation for many women even nowadays, and the fact that Messud chose to write about it may give help female readers give a second chance to the dreams of their youth. Nora’s self-rediscovery is one of the most beautiful and inspiring processes I have seen portrayed in literature, and it stands along with the library scene in Atonement, which two years later still lingers in my mind.

It has been over a month since I finished The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, but I fiercely miss Nora. Every day I look at my piles of books trying to find something that will make up for the loss, but I am afraid I will not find anything until Messud’s next book comes out this year. Even though reading The Woman Upstairs l may take a while due to the intensity of the story, Nora will remain with readers as one of the most complex, fierce, brave, inspiring and flawed characters in contemporary literature. For me this is probably the best book I have read this year so far.

I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus

I love Dick (1997) by Chris Krauss made an appearance on my Twitter feed thanks to Elizabeth Morris’ account last Autumn when she gushed about the book and the upcoming TV adaptation. She highlighted how the book dwells on women, sex, agency, and art:

I was sold from that same minute. Not only because the book promised to be a landmark in my feminist reading, but because I had been reading about rape culture and forensics for three months and I craved something different. This hype about the book, along with Wallace Yovetich’s series on romances novels for Book Riot I realised the ‘something different’ that I wanted was a story about female desire. So, when M and I decided to exchange books in Christmas instead of splurging on presents, I knew what I wanted: I love Dick.

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Even though I finished reading the book some weeks ago, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts in a coherent order. Reading I Love Dick parallels the main characters’ chaotic descent into her desire for Dick, a man she met during a networking dinner with her husband. The woman is named after the author after – as gossip goes – she had a relationship with art critic Dick Hebdige. This much was said after the book’s cool reception twenty years ago, but after the rise of the unlikable female character, all the Nasty Women, and a constant fight to be human and not perfect, I Love Dick was rediscovered by pop culture as a chant to freedom and female agency.

As an academic the book posted some interesting and complex questions about who gets to speak in specific contexts and why. Chris is an experimental artist married to Sylvère, a professor who embodies all the post-structuralist and post-modernist theories that I live by, and that I write about. However, as the couple goes to dinner with Dick, Chris finds herself unable to join the conversation. She feels an outsider to a world – Academia – that is masculine, theoretical and patronising to women and women’s experience. As the novel progresses, we learn about Chris’ past as an artist in NYC, and the many lived experiences that have shaped her into the person that falls immediately head over heels in love with a stranger.

Sylvère keeps socializing what I’m doing through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes – Adultery in Academe, John Updike meets Marivaux… Faculty Wife Throws Herself At Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there is something inherently grotesque, unspeakable about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first one – ‘Scenes from a marriage’ – presents the reader with a third-person narration of the events the set the plot in motion and how Chris shares her infatuation with Sylvère and they jointly decide to start writing letters to Dick. In them, they describe how the stranger is profoundly changing the way they relate to each other with desire taking central stage, as the couple had given up on sex for a few years now. Their sexual relationship relinked, they wonder how the introduction of a third person may change their identity as a couple, but also individually (*). The author’s vast knowledge of literature and postmodern theory allows for references to every unfaithful partner in literature, as well as even more dark references that can only be gasped at during second or third readings. Because if there is something that characterises I Love Dick that is the impossibility to control the text and pin it down to references known by the reader, a process that mirrors the beautiful yet chaotic event of falling in love and seeing your life turned upside down and blurry for a period of time.

The second part of the book is called ‘Every letter is a love letter’ and it takes place after Chris abandons Sylvère and reappropriates the relationship the couple had with him as hers only. During this period she is travelling across the United States and she presents herself to Dick by sharing her past with him: How she worked at a strip club, how she is dismissed because of her art, her constant struggle against anorexia, and how she ended up marrying Sylviere. As someone interested in the representation of eating disorders, I was shocked by the blunt description of Chris’ necessity to stop eating sometimes and the happiness that comes with the restrain and the supposed control derived from the starving. The main character’s lived experience emerges in this part of the book as her own, and she unties herself from Sylvères-wife through her desire for Dick. This does not mean that the main character replaces one partner from another as Dick is just a recipient for her letters and the only voice that we hear is hers. Instead, the return of her sexual desire brings back her desire to live and to exist outside institutions and discourses that deem her a secondary character, a side-passenger. The ending, as it happens with every infatuated state, is a crash against reality reminded the reader that the process is as important as the goal.

The fact that Chris Krauss (author) and Chris Krauss (main character) seem to be the same person posts a lot of question about women in the arts and how we have been told to dismiss the female voice and avoid questioning why it is not being heard. I Love Dick challenged the status quo and inscribes two women’s lived experience as a female artist in pop culture: the fictional Chris’, and the real-life Chris’. With the upcoming television adaptation starring Kathryn Hahn as Chris and Kevin Bacon as Dick, the wold is about to be taken by storm by a tour de force on what it means to be a woman and dare to have any kind of desire for one’s self.

In short, I Love Dick by Chris Krauss is an essential read for anyone interested in women’s agency in art, feminism, female desire, relationships and postmodernism. It is not an easy read, and the process will be plagued with chaos, infatuation with the book, hate towards the book, and a necessity to run back home to read one more chapter. But that is exactly the power of the book: Its ability to make us feel like Chris does, with no Dick whatsoever.

(*) If you are interested in how the introduction of a third-party may affect a couple I highly recommend the Netflix show You Me Her (2016 – ), where a couple gets obsessed with a female escort that eventually enters their relationship in nonprofessional terms.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was one of the most talked-about books of 2016, especially as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Not only that, but some of my favourite book bloggers kept raving about it, and after Naomi from The Writes of Woman said I would love it, I knew I had to give it a try. On the release of the paperback, I was sent a review copy by Vintage Books. Thank you!

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Eileen tells the story of twenty-four year old Eileen Dunlop just before her disappears from her stereotypically New England town in 1964. In the first chapter, we learn that she is telling the story from the present, fifty years after everything happened, and she warns us: ‘I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen’. That Eileen works as a secretary at a boy’s prison while she cares for her alcoholic father. One day, a smart, elegant redhead called Rebecca appears at the prison and disrupts Eileen’s life. By the end of the first chapter, Eileen is clear about what the rest of the story is about: ‘In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared’. The rest of the novel is organised daily, with Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship building up, slowly progressing to the day that, surprisingly for the reader, Eileen will be brave enough to break away with everything she has ever known.

So far, so good. The novel’s structure very much responds to classic crime fiction, with tension building up each day, making the reader wonder what path Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship will take. What will happen to make Eileen run away? Eileen has been widely described as a psychological thriller, and it is. But I was particularly interested in Moshfegh’s statements about the writing, and how they relate to the general perception we have about crime fiction as a highly structured subgenre beloved by the general public. In a very disruptive interview for The Guardian, Moshfegh said:

 [I] wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game. And I still feel like I’m playing it […] Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already? I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.

Although I am perfectly fine with the author’s desire to make a living off art- a right every artist should have – I was troubled by her implications that thrillers (and/or crime fiction in general) are a game to be played. As in any other subgenre, there are good books and bad books, but my own experience as a reader is that a good crime or mystery novel takes a lot of work, and is not an easy task. Moshfegh’s lack of knowledge about crime fiction was made patent when she continued:

Most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society … I couldn’t be like, Here’s my freak book … So I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Good crime fiction’ raison d’être is to open discussions about gender, race, social class and morality, the very way Eileen does. Because let me make this clear right here right now: Eileen is a good novel, not a fascinating one, especially for crime fiction readers. The whole text feels like a character study of the anti-femme fatale, and that is fine. Gildas no longer run the world. But, going back to the consideration of crime fiction and popular literature, I am afraid Eileen is built on a conservative approach to crime fiction as a minor subgenre that is meant to just sell books in a package. Said package refers to the overused formulas of genre fiction, that, however: ‘ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural unity’ (John G. 1976:  35 – 36). After these disruptive statements, Moshfegh was interviewed by the team at Virago, and she admitted she did not like how she came off in her Guardian interview as arrogant (whether or not this was damage control, that is for each of us to judge):

Eileen is plagued with scatological references, as well as vivid descriptions of the main character’s lack of personal hygiene, and her narcissistic personality. There are also references to Eileen’s virginity and her struggle to negotiate her sexual desire with her own body, which she finds disgusting. Moshfegh has admitted she has suffered eating issues since her adolescence, making her main character an informed user of laxatives, enemas and a compulsive control of her eating habits. Unhappy with her life, and unable to escape it, present-day Eileen describes her past self as a prude who wanted to erase her own body and exert control over her only subject: Herself.

All these characteristic definitely make Eileen a different book, as it insists on still necessary conversation of including non-likable female characters in contemporary literature. Instead of a thriller, I would label Eileen as a complex character study about femininity, domestic roles, family duties, morality, institutionalisation, and the importance of empowering women through knowledge of their own bodies and the outside world. I would definitely recommend it, especially after all the blurb. However, if you are an avid crime fiction reader, Moshfegh does not adhere to the tradition as much as she think she does. The main crimes perpetrated in Eileen are the main character’s total subjection to her father, and her desperate desire to escape her miserable life, which, from a feminist perspective, earn the book a recommendation.

The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi

I was contacted by MacMillan last month to get to know their latest translated author, Steinar Bragi whose novel The Icelands came out on the 25th October. Even though I do not read much Scandi crime fiction, I enjoy it a lot when I finally step out of my British/American comfort zone. So, after taking a look at the book I decided it was dark enough to make it to my Halloween reading list. But I did not know what I had in my hands…

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The IcelandsHálendið in the original Icelandic, published in 2011 and translated into English by Lorenz Garcia – tells the story of two couples, Hfran and Vigdís, and Egill and Anna, who embark on a trip to Iceland’s volcanic desert. When a storm takes them out of the road and they hit a farm, they are forced to spend the night with the two old farmers who live there. From the moment they arrive they realise that the farm is completely isolated, and the old couple have no visible way of making a living. So, how do they survive? And are they really alone?

When I first started reading Bragi’s novel I expected the characteristic raw narrative of the high quality Scandi crime fiction I have read in the past years. And I found exactly that. The coldness that oozes from the page, the dirt, the darkness. It was all there. What I did not know was that The Ice Lands is a horror story, a brutal tale of survival with bizarre glimpses into Iceland’s folklore that would terrify me. I read the novel in three seatings during Halloween’s weekend, and although I was scared, I could not put it down. From the very first page it is easy to realise there is something off. But is it all in Egill’s mind after too many joints? Is it part of Hfran’s ego? Or is it the Icelandic setting, a character on its own, clouding their vision with black sandstorms?

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Sandstorm in Iceland – via Reykjavik Cars (who also have tips on how not get caught in one)

The four main characters take turns as narrators and each of them make the story move forward from a different angle. Even though the reader knows nothing about the characters in the very beginning, they share their backgrounds as they try to link what has happened to them in the past with current events. Among those currents events, the 2010’s economic crisis becomes a pivotal moment for the four of them. While Hfran and Egill enjoed a luxurious lifestyle, they are struggling to keep their image among Iceland’s important businessmen. On the other hand, Anna and Vigdís are self-made women who have been working hard for years as a journalist and as a therapist respectively. Despite the different economic backgrounds of the couples, the women’s tales seem completely separated from the men’s, giving them more substance than just the role of girlfriends.

As for the horror, it is clear since the moment the jeep is crashed that there is something off. The Icelandic weather makes it impossible to survive outdoors, so there is no option for them but to take shelter at the couple’s home, and the couple has no alternative to this. Or do they? As these four city Millennials enter the old couple’s homes we can see their social prejudices by their appropriation of their hosts’ space, which very much feels like a colonisation. The old couple seems to agree to this arrangement until we realise that the narrators intrusion into their lives is taken a step beyond. How? That is yours to discover.

I sincerely enjoyed The Ice Lands, probably the first horror book that I have read in my whole life. The characteristic blending of literary genre and social criticism of Scandi literature made it easier to keep reading even when I was scared, although I will admit I rushed through the last 30 pages because it was too much. The writing is raw, like the desert itself, and it would be easier to be fooled into feling the dirt of the characters in one’s face, with the sand giving everything a grayish tint. As a last recommendation, this book contains vivid descriptions of physical violence (animals included), which could  upset some people and animal lovers like myself. In any case, I highly recommend The Ice Lands as we are not usually offered an opportunity into Iceland’s’ horror literature, and this seems like the best place to start.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen came highly recommended on Twitter by Anna James and Elizabeth (then Preston) Morris and compared to the quirky Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, which I did not really enjoy when I first read it, but have come to appreciate as time goes by. So, when I learnt I would be spending a week in the UK, I made a list of books that I needed to purchase and The Portable Veblen was at the top. Luckily for me I found it for £2 with some minor damage to the cover.

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The first chapters were so sweet I had to picture the book with gummy bears!

Veblen is a young woman about to marry Paul, the first man that she has ever established a connection with. This is the story of how they got engaged, how they planned the wedding, how to make their very different families connect, and the medical industry. You have read it correctly. Paul works for a medical company researching a tool that the US army could use in cases of brain hemorrhage, Veblen herself has some mental health issues, and her mother is a hypocondriac. As you can imagine this mix makes up for a quirky novel. And I forgot to tell you that Veblen has a relationship with a squirrel that enters her house, Paul wants to catch, and she finally sets free – although the squirrel follows her across California.

With a plot like that, The Portable Veblen is a promising, quirky book. But I am afraid it does not deliver the same way Bernadette did. I tried to establish a connection with Veblen but found it almost impossible, not because she is unlikable, on the contrary, because she is too bland. Years spent with her hypochondriac and attention-seeker mother have erased Veblen, so that she does not make up for an interesting main character. She is not sure she is in love with Paul, and his behaviour set off some alarms whilst reading, but at the end of the day this novel is a love story between two people with special families. And although we all have special families and issues that we wish would never see the light of day, it is not so for Paul and Veblen. Their families are unnerving, but eventually they do almost nothing about it.

I really wanted to enjoy the book, and I have to admit the first chapters were very sweet, but as a whole I was a bit disappointed. However, as I was thrilled by the beginning of Veblen’s story I gave it 3 stars at Goodreads and I truly believe this book has a target audience and I was the problem, rather than the novel itself. I am writing this review a month after finishing reading just because I found the novel on my desk and I had the feeling I had some reviews left to write. But the book had completely escaped my mind.

Now, I am curious to hear what you thought of the book if you read it, or if by reading what the blurb says you would be interested:

The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.

Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.

As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience. (less)