Having recently read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (both excellent by the way), I was in the mood for a good, light-hearted novel. And I found it in Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton.
This book is set in the fictional town of Templeton, which is actually Cooperstown, NY where the author grew up. She snatched the name from James Fenimore Cooper who also wrote his books about Cooperstown but called it Templeton. She also incorporated many of the same characters in her novel that were in Cooper’s: Marmaduke Temple, Chingachgook, and Chief Uncas are just a few. As Groff states in the author’s note, “Fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies.” Now only if all these fake memoirists of the past few weeks could have kept that in mind.
The book’s central character is Willie Upton who returns home to Templeton broken-hearted and pregnant after having an affair with her professor. Willie is infamous in town because she is the last descendant of the founding father of Templeton, Marmaduke Temple who settled the town in the late 1700′s. She returns home to her kookie mother who was a former hippie and had always told Willie that she was a love-child from her days living in a commune. Her mother proceeds to reveal to Willie that her father is actually a Templeton resident and is also a relative within the original Temple family. Her mother leaves it to Willie to research and discover who her father is.
With this premise, the book travels back and forth in time through the many generations of the Temple family. Even though Marmaduke Temple was a Quaker, he had dalliances with his black slave and a Native American girl both of whom bore children. This created quite a complex family tree and through Willie’s research, we learn about the many characters in her family as well as the evolution of the town of Templeton. Of course there are secrets revealed and many scandals uncovered in the course of her research. As Willie grapples with her own identity and eventually discovers who her father is, we witness her transformation from a lost, little girl to a more grounded woman.
As a backdrop throughout the story is the ginormous (I know this isn’t a word, but I always thought that it should have been) monster that has been discovered in Glimmerglass lake which the town borders. Basically, this is a type of Loch Ness monster that has lived in the lake for over 200 years and finally dies and comes to the surface to the astonishment of the citizens. The monster is a symbol of all the dark secrets of the town that had always been hidden under the surface.
Groff’s prose is wonderful and lyrical and her descriptions of the characters are rich in imagery and their individual voice. Each character is so original and authentically portrayed and her choice of words to establish their voice is never random. The book was filled with so many great characters all of whom I wish I could have met. And none more so than the “Monster.” The epilogue is actually the Monster’s voice:
On the day it dies, the Monster thinks of:
………and how it will soon see the people legs kickety-kicking up there in the bright surface and how it loves to watch the legs kickety-kick and how it always hopes the people belonging to the legs forget to go up into the air and begin to sink;……and how sometimes the little dead people would come untethered from the lakeweed the monster had tied them in so they wouldn’t go floating up into the broad air, for even when they turned purple and their flesh fell off, the monster loves them;
I had so much fun reading this book and looked forward to picking it up every day because it took me away to a mesmerizing, magical world.