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 anticonsumerist views of her namesake, 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 minimise 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?
"Man oh man, do I love this book! Audacious, imaginative, and totally wonderful: The whole books zips and zings." (Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)
"Wildly brilliant. Razor-sharp, intimate, hilarious and profound. Every page is a delight." (Emma Jane Unsworth, author of Animals)
"The Portable Veblen is the squirreliest novel I ever read. I enjoyed it completely." (Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness)
"A deeply observed universe where heroines are named for economists and the high stakes of capitalism are set to collide with the chatter of small wild animals. Both humorous and wrenching." (Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else and Mr. Splitfoot)
"McKenzie's story of an ambitious young neurologist and the seductions of the darker side of the medical economy is both incisive and hilarious." (Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone)
"In scalpel-sharp prose, The Portable Veblen's gleefully perverse narrator seduces us with the story of a charming young woman soon to wed a handsome doctor.... I was knocked out, giddily so, by The Portable Veblen." (Nelly Reifler, author of Elect H. Mouse State Judge and See Through)
"Quirky and smart. If you loved Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, you'll love this." (Glamour)
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Quirky, Imaginative, Fun. A Revelation
I probably would not have chosen this book except that I had set myself a challenge to read the whole of the long list for the 2016 Baileys Prize for Fiction ( it subsequently made the shortlist.) However, I am so glad I did give it a go and it is definitely a book that should not be judged by its cover (which is really boring.)
The narrative is full of wit, modern-day wisdom, hippy lore, quirky storylines, feisty heroines/female characters, sibling rivalry, misunderstandings and animals who impart advice on life and love. Throw in a healthy dose of cynical corporate mendacity, medical research/ethics, philosophy, hypochondria and wedding planning and you have the basis of a very funny and refreshingly different novel. I would not normally give any time to novels with speaking squirrels but somehow, amazingly, the author manages to make this aspect of the plot work.
The main characters are all well drawn and fully rounded but it is Melanie, a main but secondary character, that is an absolute gem. I started off being irritated by her but by the end of the novel I really loved her.
The narrator was good but the variation in her voice characterisations was not as good as I would have liked, particularly for male voices. overall, she did a good job.
No time with a book is ill spent, but this was bordering on vexatious. I can just about deal with books where the characters commune with squirrels, but when they answer back I'm afraid the jig is up.
It's never a great idea to attempt to do all the individual voices in a reading. Especially across the genders. And even more especially across the genders and those with disabilities.
I would not.
The writing was fine, and the character of Melanie was a joy, and made the book bearable. At least, as it was audio, I was spared the cutesy illustrations that I gather pepper the text. But this book is up for the Baileys Prize, so what do I know?
- Gill Darling