Book Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen Elizabeth McKenzie

I’m often  somewhat behind the curve, and just as the Bailey’s Long list for 2017 has been announced I’m reading a book from 2016’s shortlist.  ‘So many books so little time’ springs to mind.

The Portable Veblen is about squirrels, love, dysfunctional families and corruption.  An excellent combination.  To say Veblen the protagonist is fond of squirrels is an understatement.  She has a particular relationship with squirrels which borders on obsessive and causes serious concern to her fiancé Paul.  Veblen and Paul are at first glance an unlikely couple.  He is an pioneering neurologist desperate to escape his hippy upbringing and disabled brother.  She is the product of a hypochondriac mother, a father who is in an institution.  She works as a temp and translates Norwegian in her spare time.  Paul seeks material stability whilst Veblen shy’s from this preferring to live a humble life in her tumble down cottage

I knew from page one I was going to love this book and when I got to page 7 and this description of a Squirrel I was done for.

“…Sciurus gross appeared on her bedroom sill.  It’s topcoat was charcoal, its chest as white as an oxford shirt, its tail as rakish as the feather in a conquistador’s cap.  The western gray sat with quiet dignity, head high, shoulders back, casting a forthright glance through the window with its large brown eyes.  What a vision!”

There are many interesting relationships in the novel but perhaps the one that made me laugh and cringe in equal measure was between Veblen and her mother. Many mother / daughter relationships are complex but this mother-daughter relationship far exceeds even this.

“There was a time when abreacting to her mother was out of the question, untenable.  The slightest ripple between them terrified her.  She was aware that her mother had trained her to turn herself inside out, like a pocket to be inspected for pilfered change”

Her mother is obsessed with illness, and mostly herself.  As it happens in the end despite her mothers initial distaste with Paul he is the glue which holds Veblen and her mother together.  He shows immense patience and interest in her multiple conditions and rises to the various challenges he sets her, and eventually though his own misfortune gives her a chance to rise, to exert her authority and shine.

There is a tremendous sense of place throughout the novel.  The warmth and light of California is used to great effect and described beautifully.

“The skin of the old year was crackling, coming apart, the sewers sweeping it away beneath the roads.  Soon would come a change in the light, the brief, benign winter of Northern California tilting to warmth and flowers”

This novel is quirky, funny romantic and brimming with interesting characters.  It is also very well written.  There isn’t too much else I could ask for from a novel.  Its very clear why this was shortlisted, and i’m very pleased I got around to reading it.


  1. Karen
    March 27, 2017 / 1:57 pm

    Loved it too and reminds me of sunny holiday days reading too xx

      March 27, 2017 / 7:38 pm

      Yes, I remember you reading it in France. Happy days xx

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