Book review: Shebang, by Valerie Vogrin

originally posted elsewhere: December 18, 2010

tl;dr: First-time novelist Vogrin profiles a post-modern family...

Do the members of a family have to realize that they are in a family in order for it to be a family? It takes a long while for the central character in Valerie Vogrin's novel Shebang, Fin, to realize that the seemingly random collection of people who occupy her house are there for more than three squares a day and a place to sleep, and that she (Fin) actually has some important responsibilities as the leader of the family.

Because she is the inheritor of her grandmother's family house and catering business, and also because she lacks ambition to do more than go with the flow, Fin without realizing it has been cast by fate to be the main anchor and provider for a variety of people who come into her life. She is related by blood to only one of the occupants of her house, but she attracts others because she is able to offer them food, shelter, acceptance, and care, more so than the outside world. Over time this group of people starts to more deeply rely upon each other, help each other, and regulate each other's behavior - in short, to become a functional family, a post-modern family. Given the growth of non-traditional families over the past decades, Vogrin in Shebang makes many interesting and relevant observations about what constitutes a family and how a family can form and grow.

A book cover consisting of a painting of the outside of a white house, with grass, flowers, building columns, a sidewalk and a road visible, superimposed over which is an image of a shooting target with the book's title on it, and the author's name at the bottom of the cover

What I most enjoyed in Shebang was what Vogrin had to say about the concept of family. She got her points across entirely through the story itself, the characters and the plot, without every having to spell them out. The pace of the plot dragged in the first half of the book, but picked up in the second half. I think Shebang would have been a better book if Vogrin had dropped a few of the minor characters who come and go without impacting the storyline at all (such as a TV addicted lover of Fin's) and instead drawn deeper portraits of the remaining characters. There are also some sub-plots that are never resolved - again, Shebang probably would have been better if Vogrin had instead focused more deeply on fewer things. This might also have given her a chance to use more descriptive language - as it is, Shebang is written in a fairly breezy, almost conversational style of writing.

Sometimes a first novel is the best work that an author ever produces, and the author bursts onto the literary scene with an amazing success that is never again equalled. Much more common, however, is for a first novel to be more tentative, shallow, unformed, simplistic, and less subtle and polished than the author's subsequent works. The latter hopefully is the case with Vogrin's Shebang. I can't at all recommend it as a "must read from an amazing new literary talent", but if Vogrin is able to hone her craft and improve with her next novel, I would be willing to give it a chance as a reader.