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Book Review - The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Climbing the Family Tree

The Monsters of Templeton
Lauren Groff

Published by Hyperion

Review by W. R. Greer

The Monsters of Templeton is set in the fictional town of Templeton, New York. Lauren Groff explains in an author's note at the beginning of the novel that she "wanted to write a love story for Cooperstown," her hometown. Cooperstown was founded by William Cooper, father of the novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, and is the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In researching its history and trying to re-create the hometown she loved, Lauren Groff created a fictional equivalent of it and renamed it Templeton, saying "My Templeton is to Cooperstown as a shadow is to the tree that spawned it; an outline that takes texture from the ground it falls on."

It is evident from reading The Monsters of Templeton that Lauren Groff does love her hometown and much of the novel pays homage to the sense of community its townspeople treasure and their appreciation of its history. It's not really a sentimental rendering of a place that represents the values that seem to have fled small towns all over the country. Instead, it is a vehicle to examine both the effects of change on a person's (and town's) life and how the history that has shaped our past is more colorful and treacherous than once believed. To set the stage for this, she starts the novel off with a wallop:

The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass. It was one of those strange purple dawns that colors July there, when the bowl made by the hills fills with a thick fog and even the songbirds sing timorously, unsure of day or night.
The dead lake monster is a portent of change that is about to reverberate through the lives of the characters in this novel. It dies on the day that the narrator, Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton, unexpectedly comes home to Templeton. Willie had moved away to California expecting never to return, except for short holiday visits, and was doing field research for her PhD in archaeology. She had an affair, though, with her dissertation adviser that ended badly when his wife found out about it, and she's discovered she's pregnant. Not only is she facing her personal crisis, but in an eerie sense of deja vu, she appears to be repeating her mother's mistake. Her mother, Vi, left the hippie culture of San Francisco to come back to Templeton after the sudden death of her parents and she discovered she was pregnant with Willie. Even though she loved San Francisco, Vi decided that Templeton was the best place to raise Willie.

To add to Willie's unraveling world, Vi drops another bombshell on her. She'd always led Willie to believe that her father was one of three possible men who participated in a commune orgy with her. Vi tells her that her real father is a man from Templeton, but she refuses to tell her his identity. At Willie's insistence, Vi agrees to give her one clue — her father is also a descendant of the town's founder, Marmaduke Temple. Desperately needing a project to occupy her time and mind, Willie throws herself into researching family and town history to find her father's identity.

Vi and Willie are descendants of Marmaduke Temple as well. They live in the old family house near Lake Glimmerglass, the only remnant of the family wealth that had not been squandered away over generations. Actually, Vi and Willie are descendants from two different genealogical lines from Marmaduke. Vi's father was descended from Marmaduke and his wife, Elizabeth, and Vi's mother was descended from a coupling of Marmaduke and his slave, Hetty. As Willie delves into the family history looking for the bloodlines that might point to her father, her narration of the story is interrupted by letters and journals from the past.

Willie is not happy to be back in Templeton. She does her best to avoid the people she grew up with, and is frustrated with Vi who appears to have thrown off her hippie, feminist past to embrace religion instead. To make matters worse, her best friend in California has lupus and really needs Willie there for emotional support. Willie's fit of pique with everyone in her life begins to grow tiresome. About a third of the way through The Monsters of Templeton, Willie begins to become an unsympathetic character and her research into the town's past isn't particularly riveting. Her quest to find the truth about her family begs the question as to why it's necessary to determine whether the history as it's been told is the truth or not. What possible impact could it have on Willie's present situation?

Lauren Groff rescues Willie and her bout of self-pity by forcing her to deal with both the realities of her situation and the people of Templeton. Unsurprisingly, she finds that there's a lot she doesn't know about the town's present as well as its past. As Willie opens herself to the people who want to reach out to her, she begins to find the support and the kick in the ass that she needs to deal with her crisis. As she digs further into the past, the story of her family's past becomes more intriguing as she discovers unknown births out of wedlock, arson, revenge, and murder. The last hundred pages of the book are almost impossible to put down as all the strands of history, both recent and generations past, finally come together. Even Glimney, the lake monster, gets to tell his story.

The Monsters of Templeton stumbles a few times. Vi's conversion to religion never rings completely true and the minister of her new church is never fully realized. Lauren Groff does successfully mix in a bit of magical realism with a ghost that lives in the family home and women in the family's past with extraordinary abilities (to say more would ruin the surprise). Lauren Groff adds enough surprise to this book to offset any extra sweetness or predictability that comes with telling the story of a town she obviously loves, and the result is a debut novel that is to be savored. Willie and Vi can be a bit exasperating at times, but it's their spunk to live life on their own terms that also makes them endearing.

Lauren Groff has filled her novel with photos of the characters from the past and Willie's family tree as it is constantly revised. Its intoxicating mixture of past and present, mundane and magical, dreams and reality all coalesces into a delightful novel that leaves you turning the pages quickly and finishing with a satisfied smile on your face. To use a baseball metaphor, with The Monsters of Templeton, she's hit one out of the park.

Copyright © 2008

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