Lauren Groff's wonderfully accomplished debut novel, THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON, begins with a young woman, Wilhemina ("Willie") Upton, returning to her hometown of Templeton, New York, in disgrace. Her years of bad decision-making when it comes to men have culminated in an unwanted pregnancy, a near-death experience and the ruin of her once-promising career. Willie comes back to her mother Vivienne's home sheepishly, her own situation being uncomfortably reminiscent of former hippie Vivienne's similar return to Templeton years before, when she was pregnant with Willie.
Willie had always been told that her father was unknown, that he was one of three (or more) members of the free-love household Vivienne had occupied in San Francisco during her wild teenage years, that his name was now lost to the mists of time. Now, though, Vivienne has discovered Jesus (thanks to the attractive and charismatic preacher man she's now dating) and has decided it's time to tell Willie the truth --- or at least part of it. It turns out that Willie's father is actually right there in Templeton, a man Willie has known her whole life. Vivienne draws the line at telling Willie the man's name, though, but this teasing bit of information gives Willie a new sense of purpose.
A former archaeology graduate student, Willie throws herself into her research with aplomb, simultaneously setting off on a quest for her roots and uncovering the skeletons hidden deep in the closets of some of Templeton's most celebrated founding fathers and mothers, from whom Willie and her dad are descended. As she spends her days exploring her ancestor's life in the town archives and her nights becoming re-acquainted with some of Templeton's current denizens, Willie begins to paint a radically revised portrait of herself and of the town that has shaped her.
Lauren Groff grew up in Cooperstown, New York, and Templeton is a thinly-veiled version of that town made famous by a baseball museum and by its most celebrated son, James Fenimore Cooper. Inspired by Cooper himself (who also fictionalized Cooperstown as Templeton), Groff infuses her novel with references to and characters from Cooper's own works. The ambitious narrative switches back and forth rapidly from present to past (as Willie's ancestors reveal their histories in their own words), from the elevated style of the 18th century to Willie's own self-deprecating, somewhat sarcastic voice.
Groff's novel is whimsical and quirky --- how could it be anything else when the novel opens with the removal of a large, mysterious sea monster from the depths of Lake Glimmerglass? --- but it also offers serious meditations on the formation of self and the revision of history, whether institutional or personal.
"'I come home to Templeton because it's the only place in the world that never changes, and I mean never, never changes, and here's this half-dead lake,'" Willie observes. "'I always thought, hey, if the ice caps melt and all the cities of the world are swallowed up, Templeton will be fine…. But it doesn't seem right anymore. Does it?'" More so than her unborn child, more so than her evolving relationship with her mother, it's her rapidly shifting opinion of Templeton itself that throws Willie into crisis --- and that eventually allows her to find, and claim, her own identity.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011
The Monsters of Templeton