The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie – Baileys shortlist 2016

Review published on May 12, 2016.

This nutty confection of a novel is a rom-com that’s not super-sweet and very original. Squirrels figure prominently in the story and are responsible for much of the foreshadowing at the beginning of the book. The Portable Veblen is partly rumination on marriage and family, partly statement about materialism and consumerism, and partly revealing about corruption in big business.

Veblen and Paul become engaged quite quickly, and then begin to get to know each other. This leads to a rather tentative engagement, especially when their eccentric families come into the picture and they realize how opposite they really are about doing life. And then there are squirrels portrayed both as pesky pests and as wise confidantes. It is mostly a whimsical morality tale about the values we choose to live by, and felt a bit like a modern fairy tail….er, tale.

Veblen (named after a Norwegian economist) is a passionate defender of anti-consumerism and a translator of Norwegian. Paul is a neuroscientist working on a new device to minimize battlefield brain trauma. He, in sharp contrast to his fiancé, is lured by fame and fortune and finds himself in a shady deal.

Described as “riotously funny and slyly profound,”  I must say that all rang true when I started and I liked what the author was trying to do, but it did not sustain (or in my opinion succeed) as the quirky thoughtful novel it could have been. Even though I normally love a good character study, I found this one quite boring and the characters as unremarkable and random as the deadpan black and white photos scattered throughout the book. Nothing much happens to propel the story forward and I found Veblen and Paul were woefully undeveloped and two dimensional. They felt like props put there for the purpose of the novel. The witty appendices at the end, including the word squirrel in 65 languages, was too little too late and felt like a cheap trick. I struggle to give it three stars, but do so only because it must be on the Baileys shortlist for a reason and has received many glowing reviews. Perhaps it just wasn’t my bowl of acorns.

with thanks to Joanne Booy
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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Fourth Estate hbk Jan 2016

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