By Lauren Groff ’01. New York City: Hyperion, 2008. 384 pp. $24.95 hardover.
Review by Katie Bacon '93
In The Monsters of Templeton, a sprawling, multi-layered debut novel, Lauren Groff
’01 skillfully delineates dozens of characters. But none makes its presence more strongly felt than the town of Templeton itself, and the mysterious creature long rumored to have haunted its lake. On the morning Wilhemina Upton skulks back to her small hometown, having dropped out of her Stanford Ph.D. program after the disastrous end of an affair with her professor, the creature’s 50-foot, cream-colored, four-legged corpse is pulled out of the lake. The townspeople gather, and as they place their hands on the beast’s skin, “it emanated such a strong sense of solitude that each human standing in the park that day felt miles from the others, though we were shoulder-to-shoulder, touching.”
Templeton, a stand-in for Cooperstown, N.Y., was invented in the early 1800s by the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who, in the novel The Pioneers, wrote about the town’s establishment in colonial times by a Quaker named Marmaduke Temple, closely based on the author’s father, William Cooper. Groff grew up in Cooperstown, and in some ways her novel is both a celebration of that town and an investigation (albeit a fanciful one) of its past. As she writes in an author’s note at the beginning of the book, “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.”
Groff’s detective is Willie Upton—reckless, childish and self-centered, yet ultimately appealing because of her strong wit and intelligence. Since her childhood, Willie has known two truths: that she and her mother, Vivienne, are the last living Templeton residents descended from Marmaduke Temple, and that she is the product of a “love fest” in a San Francisco commune. But Vi, who has become a born-again Christian since Willie last visited, now confesses that she lied to her daughter. Willie’s father lives in town, and he too is rumored to be descended from Marmaduke. If Willie can dig back through six generations to find the secret line of descent, she will discover her father’s identity.
For the reader, the resulting investigation is over the top but fun nevertheless; during the next six weeks, as Willie digs up secret caches of letters and lore, she has enough eureka moments to make a couple of historians’ careers. She connects the dots between an arsonist who, in a fit of passionate rage, burns down much of Main Street in the 1800s; a slave who obtains her freedom by marrying the town leather tanner; a woman who sacrifices her sanity in the quest to bring the Baseball Hall of Fame to Templeton; and Chingachgook, the Mohican chief who clashes with Marmaduke (and whom Fenimore Cooper wrote about in The Last of the Mohicans). Groff deftly brings these and other characters to life, and if some of them seem, at times, to be from central casting (the small-town jock who is smarter than he appears; the spunky best friend who swoops in when necessary to provide prodding and moral support), it’s easy to forgive the lapses, since so many of the characters have the spark of individuality.
As Groff peels back the layers of the generations, she exposes a living, pulsing town in different eras, from a rough settlement on the edge of the American frontier to a prosperous and high-profile community during the antebellum years, to a town fighting hordes of baseball tourists to retain its identity. Throughout that 200-year span, certain features recur: the curly red hair passed down by Marmaduke Temple, the pull the town exerts on those who leave and the whispers about the strange monster beneath the surface of the lake.
At one point, stumped on how to proceed in her quest, Willie turns to the novels of Jacob Franklin Temple, Groff’s version of James Fenimore Cooper. “I was reading for plot then,” Willie says. “Because if there’s one thing Temple could do as a writer, it was to spin a ravishing yarn.” People will read Groff’s book, too, for plot. In places the dialogue feels clichéd, in others the metaphors strained. And the book could have used some streamlining. The details of life in modern-day Templeton, sometimes drag on, in the way that happens when someone’s describing a place that they love and that they want you to love, too. But this is a book that gains momentum as it goes, one where you look up and realize that you’ve started turning the pages faster and faster as you race to find out what happens. Groff, like Cooper, knows how to spin a ravishing yarn.
Bacon is an editor and writer based in Boston. Her last piece for Amherst was a profile of Patrick Fitzgerald ’82 (Winter 2008).