The Monsters of Templeton

monsters_templeton

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.

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6 Responses to The Monsters of Templeton

  1. Steph says:

    I think this was a great review, Theresa – I agreed with a lot of it, actually! I also really enjoy magical realism, and yet I felt like it really didn’t work here. I’ll have to read your review of Middlesex; I read it earlier this year, and enjoyed it well enough, but it’s not the powerful work of fiction I feel a Pulitzer winner should be, and I do think that it didn’t necessarily deliver what it seemed to promise.

    Perhaps you would enjoy Groff’s latest offering, seeing as it is a collection of short stories (one of which is set in Templeton, I believe). I think you might be on to something with the idea she might really shine in the short story format, and I’m with you that if she can learn to rein in her writing/creativity rather than feeling every device/style/genre must be part of her novel, she’d be better served.

  2. Priscilla says:

    Thanks for this review Teresa. I loved Delicate Edible Birds, and I’m wondering if I had picked up Monsters of Templeton first, if I would have been willing to even read the collection afterwards. Something you say intrigues me: I wonder if she wrote the book as a story cycle and then turned it into a novel to try to get it published. If you read the story collection (published after the novel), I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think her strengths are! Here’s my review, carried over from my old blog, if you’re curious. :) http://eveningreader.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/readers-journal-delicate-edible-birds/

  3. Jenny says:

    Heh. I picked this book up in the bookstore, flipped through it, and thought I would feel “meh” about it, so put it back. Intuition triumphs! Great review.

  4. Teresa says:

    Steph: I think the fussy writing didn’t bother me as much as it did you, but I was frustrated that there were too many strands to follow and that they never quite coalesced. I don’t read a lot of short stories, but some of the historical letters and journals did make lovely little stand-alone pieces, so I’m guessing that she would be a good story writer–she certainly can’t throw everything and the kitchen sink into a story.

    Priscilla: Interesting theory about the story cycle, especially given that she has now published a story collection. Maybe she managed that on the basis of this novel’s success. From your review, I get the impression that the present-day story here would fit well into Delicate Edible Birds, although my favorite parts of this book were the historical letters and journal entries. There’s a particularly good sequence of letters that show a close friendship disintegrating.

    Jenny: I picked this up about a zillion times at the library before checking it out. Curiousity–paired with some slim pickings on a recent library visit–eventually got the better of me.

  5. Pingback: Lauren Groff – The Monsters of Templeton « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

  6. Pingback: Review: ‘The Monsters of Templeton’ by Lauren Groff

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