I’m often somewhat behind the curve; and just as the Bailey’s Short List for 2017 has been announced, I’m reading a book from Bailey’s 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 that 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’s a pioneering neurologist desperate to escape his hippy upbringing and disabled brother. She’s the product of a hypochondriac mother and a father who’s in an institution. Veblen works as a temp and translates Norwegian in her spare time. Paul seeks material stability while Veblen shy’s from this, preferring to live a humble life in her tumble-down cottage
I knew from page one that 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 mother’s initial distaste with Veblen’s fiancé, Paul 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. Eventually, though, his own misfortune gives her a chance to rise, to exert her authority, and to shine.
There’s 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’s also very well written — there isn’t too much else I could ask for from a novel. It’s very clear why this was shortlisted — and I’m very pleased I got around to reading it.
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About The Author
Elizabeth McKenzie is the author of The Portable Veblen, long listed for the 2016 National Book Award for fiction and finalist for the Baileys Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her collection, Stop That Girl, was short-listed for The Story Prize, and her novel MacGregor Tells the World was a Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal Best Book of the year.
Review by Angela Vincent Of Changing Pages | The Black Lion is a humble interdisciplinary journal that values your voice. Visit the submissions page to learn more about submitting to the Journal’s sections or to The Wire’s Dream Magazine. | Copyright Policy
Author bio and image from author’s ‘about’ page. Book front image from Amazon. Header image from Changing Pages.