Yes, I too was wary of a novel centered on a woman who communicates with squirrels. However, Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen astounded me with its ability to comically and compassionately capture one woman’s navigation of love, family, work (or lack thereof), and yes, rodents.
Veblen—named for economist Veblen Thorstein by her woo-woo, hypochondriac mother—is on the verge of a marriage to seemingly rock steady neurologist Paul. Paul’s professional life is thrown into disorder when his groundbreaking device (essentially a hole punch for skulls) gets snatched up by the Department of Defense to treat traumatized soldiers. As promises of fame and fortune begin to occupy Paul’s life and threaten his values, Veblen is left to plan the impending wedding ceremony while keeping peace within her fragmented, eccentric family (and soon Paul’s as well). Veblen reacts how many of us do when facing adversity: by regressing into old ways. For Veblen, this means indulging her needy mother’s insecurities and venting to an empathetic squirrel—habits that she has consciously shielded from Paul for fear that he will abandon her. Veblen and Paul grow into more nuanced, relatable characters as they (tardily) begin to confront their differences, reveal their weaknesses, and learn about each other’s pasts.
RATING: * * * * Very, very good
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Reviewed by: Susannah B.