When Willie Upton suddenly returns to her hometown of Templeton, New York, a dead monster rises to the surface of the lake. That’s how Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, begins. As the story continues, we learn that a monster isn’t all that has been hiding under the surface of the town. There are also secrets hidden in Willie’s family history. Because Willie’s ancestors founded the town, her family’s secrets are the town’s secrets.
A student of archaeology, Willie begins digging into her family’s past because her mother Vi, once a hippie and now a born-again Baptist, tells Willie that she is not the daughter of one of the three men she had flings with back in California. Willie’s father is from Templeton, and his family is connected to Willie’s own. Willie, who is herself now pregnant, decides to investigate her family to find out who else in the town is descended from town founder Marmaduke Temple. If she can answer that question, she can find her father.
Lake monsters and family ghosts aside, Willie’s story is pretty predictable, almost to the point of cliche. She and her mother have arguments that end in tears of anger or of happiness. Willie learns that the quirky people of her small town have great wisdom and are there to support her, even if she chose to leave them so many years ago. Not a bad sort of story, but stories like this don’t often set my world on fire.
Two things set this novel apart from other sentimental small-town fiction: the magical elements and the historical narrative. The magical elements–the lake monster and the family ghosts–are little more than plot devices. They never feel fully integrated into the rest of the book. The one time a spirit acts to influence the plot, it seems to merely be a deus ex machina because until that moment we’re never given any reason to think the spirits behave in this way. I love magical realism, but this is magical convenience, at least in the present-day story.
The historical elements are somewhat more successful because they are better integrated into the overall story, and the magical elements are put to better use in the historical sections as well. As Willie investigates her family’s history, she reads letters and other documents that are reproduced in the novel. The history contains a crazy mix of characters. There’s a slave woman who claims to have some sort of psychic power over the men who come to her bed, a cross-dressing bordello owner, and several characters from the works of James Fenimore Cooper. (Templeton is a stand-in for Cooperstown, the hometown of both Groff and Cooper.) Some of the letters and documents are quite entertaining, but the cumulative effect is less than astounding. There just seem to be a few too many amazing occurances and a few too many odd characters for one family.
In a lot of ways, my feeling about this novel is similar to my reaction to Middlesex. Both have some really clever elements, but the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together. Here, we have a rather sappy novel about family and small-town relationships paired with an epic reimaging of one town’s history. I probably wouldn’t even pick up the first book, and the second would have worked better as a series of related short stories along the lines of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. (The short story approach would also have the advantage of not requiring the reader to understand all the ties, and it would allow some of the characters to exist in the world of Templeton without being directly connected to the Templeton family.)
I did find this book a little more satisfying than Middlesex,partly because this book didn’t win the Pulitzer so it didn’t have that standard to live up to. Also, Steph’s review lowered my expectations of this book quite a bit, so I ended up being pleasantly surprised at about what I did like. There’s some good stuff here. I’m just hoping Groff has more good stuff left and that she learns to spread it out over multiple books instead of packing it into one. She’d serve her talent better that way.