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Book Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

From the moment I saw this wonderful squirrelly cover I knew that I wanted to read The Portable Veblen. Which probably comes as no surprise when I run a blog called the Nut Press, have a grey squirrel sidekick and take more photos of the squirrels in my garden than just about anything else. Going in, I had very little idea what the novel was about. I just hoped that I would enjoy it, and the grey squirrel in it would get some fair coverage. Happily, it more than lived up to every expectation.

A riotously funny and deeply insightful adventure through capitalism, the medical industry, family, love, war and wedding-planning – from an electrically entertaining new voice

Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.

Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence.

What could possibly go wrong?

Veblen’s wonderful voice had me from the first pages: she’s a really relatable character and I loved seeing how she worked through all the situations in the novel but especially enjoyed the added squirrel dynamic.

Veblen lives in a wonderful old bungalow in Palo Alto complete with resident grey squirrel, works as a temp administrator and is an amateur translator of Norwegian in her spare time. Her fiance Paul is a scientist (sometimes given to experimenting on squirrels for his medical trials) seduced by the lure of private medical research. They don’t seem to have that much in common but it’s fascinating to see how their relationship develops throughout the novel and how they navigate making room for the other person in their life, the compromises they make and what their existing family set ups are like and how these need to be handled to accommodate the new addition.

In addition to this look at love and family relationships, the novel has a swiping look at old versus new, medical research in the realm of corporate greed and war, capitalism and socialism, mental illness, physical handicaps, career advancement and ambition and stagnation. It’s punchy and full of life and it made me laugh, and swear, and get frustrated with the world, and fret, and laugh again. It is a brilliant, dazzling read and it’s totally won this book squirrel’s heart. I loved it so much I even typed out the Norwegian letter and fed it through a translation tool to ensure that there wasn’t one word of this brilliant book I’d left unread.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie is out today in hardback and as an ebook. It is published by Fourth Estate in the UK and Penguin Press in the US. To find out more, you can visit Elizabeth McKenzie’s website, Stop That Girl or Follow Elizabeth on Twitter or Like Elizabeth on Facebook

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