STARRED REVIEW
January 2016

A little squirrely

By Elizabeth McKenzie
Review by
That one of the recurring characters in The Portable Veblen is a squirrel tells you much about the experience of reading Elizabeth McKenzie’s clever second novel. Veblen, the 30-year-old protagonist who chats with the squirrel, describes herself as an “independent behaviorist,” translates for the Norwegian Diaspora Project in her spare time and “still favored baggy oversized boy’s clothes.” This novel is like vegetables cut on a bias: slightly skewed, pleasing to look at, and, thanks to its skilled chef, a joy to consume.
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That one of the recurring characters in The Portable Veblen is a squirrel tells you much about the experience of reading Elizabeth McKenzie’s clever second novel. Veblen, the 30-year-old protagonist who chats with the squirrel, describes herself as an “independent behaviorist,” translates for the Norwegian Diaspora Project in her spare time and “still favored baggy oversized boy’s clothes.” This novel is like vegetables cut on a bias: slightly skewed, pleasing to look at, and, thanks to its skilled chef, a joy to consume.

Veblen is named after Thorstein Veblen, the early 20th-century economist who “espoused anti-materialistic beliefs,” and is, like her namesake, a nonconformist. She lives alone in a bungalow in Palo Alto, but has fallen in love with Paul Vreeland, an ambitious young neurologist. Although they’ve known each other for only three months, they plan to marry. And Paul has another plan: He’s developing a device that will help medics perform emergency craniotomies on the front lines.

Paul’s device isn’t ready for the field yet, but the Department of Defense is interested, as is Cloris Hutmacher, a Tesla-driving pharmaceutical heiress. As Paul decides whether to enter into business with a firm that is the antithesis of Thorstein Veblen’s writings, he’s also grappling with his hippie parents and an emotionally challenged brother. Veblen’s side of the family presents challenges, too, most notably her mother, a hypochondriac who keeps a typed list of her medical history behind a ceramic bowl filled with pinecones and presents the list to Paul when they’re introduced.

The Portable Veblen has extraneous plot points, but for the most part, this is a funny and well-written novel about family, love and the perils of misplaced ambition. Adding to the experience are the many photographs wittily distributed throughout: Next to the paragraph in which Veblen’s stepfather offers her a chicken burrito is a tiny photo of a stuffed tortilla wrapped in foil. When you know what you’re doing, as McKenzie does here, to go against the grain is no bad thing.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our Q&A with Elizabeth McKenzie about The Portable Veblen.

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen

By Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594206856

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