Book Review: The Portable Veblen

the portable veblen

the portable veblen 2.jpg


Can squirrels speak? Do snails scream?

Will a young couple, newly engaged, make it to their wedding day? Will their dysfunctional families ruin everything? Will the be undone by the advances of a very sexy, very unscrupulous heiress to a pharmaceuticals corporation?

Is getting married even a remotely reasonable idea in the twenty first century?

And what in the world is a ‘Veblen’ anyway?


At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 3.46 out of 5

Opening Lines

Huddled together on the last block of Tasso Street, in a California town as Palo Alto, was a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies. And in one lived a woman in the slim spring of her life, and her name was Veblen Amundsen-Hovda.


For the life of me I can’t remember whether ‘The Portable Veblen’ was a book that I picked up or if it was a gift. As there is a Waterstones ‘Buy One Get One Half Price’ sticker on the front I will assume I picked this up for myself. Either that or some people really need to learn how to remove those discount stickers.

I only say this because while I was reading ‘The Portable Veblen’ I kept thinking that it wasn’t my type of book and when I re-read the blurb I couldn’t see anything that would have appealed to me enough to have made me pick it up. But then, I try to be open when choosing books as I’ve found some hidden gems that way.

This book was long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction which goes to show that people that drink don’t always make the best choices.

I think it’s probably quite mean of me to say that, but I hated this book.

End of review.

OK, fine. I’ll put some effort into saying why.

I think the main answer to my question, “why am I reading this?” was that I desperately didn’t want to add to my ‘did not finish’ pile. The second reason – which is so mean spirited – is that I hated the two main characters together so much that I needed to see if they would actually make it as a couple. And yes, I was desperately hoping they wouldn’t. Considering this is supposed to be a romance (I think), I don’t know if me rooting for the main couple to break up was supposed to be the intention of the author.

Many of the quotes on the back of the book are from newspaper reviews and refer to ‘The Portable Veblen’ as ‘wildly funny,’ ‘full of humour,’ ‘darkly funny,’ and so on. Others refer to it as ‘quirky,’ ‘irrepressibly quirky’ and ‘weird and hilarious.’

Right. Ok, newspaper reviewers. You’re the professionals here. But… I didn’t find it funny. Not a single ruddy paragraph. Maybe it’s my sense of humour. Maybe it’s because my expectations were high and I was thinking this would be a deeply amusing and introspective look at fascinating individuals navigating the romantic terrain in which they found themselves.

No. It was not.

This was also touted as ‘quirky.’ Years ago, when I was at college I knew a girl who was really nice but boring. One day she announced that she was ‘crazy’ because she had decided to wear odd socks. She hadn’t accidentally put them on she told us, it was an active decision. This in her mind made her incredibly quirky. There was no irony involved.

This book is that girl. Desperately trying to be so different that it gets laid on a little too thick until all you can think is that it is a little too much of a try hard. Ouch, is that too mean?

The main character is clearly suffering from some generalised anxiety disorder and results in her biting down on her arms to relieve this anxiety and, in times of extreme stress, she believe that squirrels are talking to her. Both of these are played for laughs. Her fiancé has struggled with neglectful hippy parents who ignored him in favour of a developmentally disabled older brother to the point where the fiancé is deeply passive aggressive. This is played for laughs. We are also supposed to side with his passive aggressive (borderline controlling) behaviour towards the main character. The main character’s mother is a self-centered, overprotective hypochondriac who is deeply unlikable. This is played for laughs.

The only one I actually found myself giving two sh*ts about was the main character, Veblen herself. But I found myself not liking how her possible mental health issues were skirted over in the name of ‘romance’ and humour when this could have been a very interesting look at how mental health impacts your daily functioning life and how bad parenting can screw you over well into adulthood.

Also, because I didn’t care for those two people that the main character spent most of her time with (her mother and fiancé) I really c\didn’t are how those relationships progressed. I wondered if the book would offer up a climactic moment between mother and daughter and a final statement as to how badly the mother has behaved all her daughter’s life – but nope, this wasn’t that type of book. I was also desperate for the main character to realise that she had picked a poor and incompatible choice of life partner and that she would be far stronger if she left him and did life her way aka Shirley Bassey. Again, it wasn’t that type of book.

Sadly, I spent some time looking for the plot but couldn’t find it. This book is the ‘literary’ type that offers up a lot of navel gazing self -reflection without really moving the current plot events forward. Essentially, a lot of nothing happened. Think ‘Catcher in the Rye’ but worse. (Sorry if you liked Catcher in the Rye, I couldn’t quite get on board with it). There were also reams of pages dedicated to the main character’s fiancé’s job. As he is a neuro-surgeon specialising in brain trauma the writer did her research for this very specialised field. Boy she wanted you to know it.

That’s all I want to say because I’ve already said way too much and I genuinely don’t want to waste anymore time on this book without actually drinking to dull the pain. Unrelatable characters, awful relationships, absent plot, excessive research dumping and overall very boring. I hated hated hated it.

Gosh, I am mean.

My Rating

1 Star

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Portable Veblen

  1. Beautiful rant haha. 😀 I will definitely avoid this as I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder and wouldn’t need this book throwing it in my face for laughs (biting arms and talking to squirrels, wth?). Hope you’ll read something better next, and I don’t trust literary awards either, same as the movie critics, there are some dubious people employed as such.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      It was just… strange. I feel like this could have been such a better book if it wasn’t *trying* to be quirky and just went a bit more serious. Not even a lot more serious but just a bit. I didn’t feel that there was any resolution to Veblen’s anxiety issues (as in, they were just glossed over and not acknowledged) and there was no closure to any of her triggers either (her mother being one) and in the end it was sort of like, ‘oh look, how quirky we are all’ and just… yeuch.

      I’m dubious about literary awards. Most of the books I’ve read that are highly awarded I haven’t liked. Personal taste I guess?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pwahaha I love your snark! Yeah, I wouldn’t enjoy a book that is insensitive to mental health! And I totally feel you when you say that you didn’t want to DNF this book and that you finished it just so you could see the ending; sounds totally reasonable to me. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do worry sometimes that my snark is too… snarky? Is that a word? But as long as people enjoy it I’ll keep doing it. It’s either that or a five minute video of my smacking my head on my desk.

      I truly hated the guy in the book, I was desperate to see if they remained together and would have voodoo dolled him if I had the energy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A big resounding NOPE to books that use mental health issues as the punchline of a joke. I tend to not trust those professional reviews (sorry critics) when it comes to “literary” fiction, but I do trust your sense of humour and general common-sense, so I’ll stay far away from this one. (That cover is kind of cute though)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it could have gone a completely different way and there was so much untapped potential there. The more I read the more I realise I don’t do ‘literary’ because it just constantly feels like people are telling you what you should enjoy. Veblen as a main character was sympathetic and I’m tempted to do a post on what I think should have happened with the main characters of stories I don’t like!


  4. I was in a bookstore yesterday and a man was lecturing his kid about how “it’s definitely a good book if it’s nominated for an award” and I really wanted to step in and lecture him right back that sometimes these book-awarding committees really have no idea what they’re talking about. Clearly, as evidenced by this book. It sounds very bad and I’m sorry that you had to read it. I hope your next book is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ugh no. Some of the worst books I’ve read have been nominated for awards or are on bestseller’s lists or have been lauded as the ‘must read’ book for the year/ season etc. I always wonder what makes a book ‘award worthy’ but still haven’t worked that out yet!

      Liked by 1 person

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