Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monsters of Templeton

I admit it, I read this book because Stephen King wrote a blurb for the cover.  I don't usually read the cover blurbs, but when I see and author I love as much as SK has read the book I am considering, I pay attention.  That blurb was pretty much all I knew about The Monsters of Templeton before I started reading.  As a result, I was expecting a horror story...and why wouldn't I?  Stephen Freakin' King wrote a blurb.  What I actually got was something far more complex and indefinable.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff tells the story of Willie Upton, the down and out descendent of the founder of Templeton, Marmaduke Temple.  She has fled back to her childhood home after a disastrous affair with her dissertation adviser.  Pregnant, depressed, sure she is losing her career and her life, she stumbles into town in the middle of the night.  The next morning, much to everyone's surprise, the body of a huge animal floats to the surface of Glimmerglass Lake-the fabled monster Glimmey, supposed-myth turned real.  Into the public chaos that ensues, Willie gets a little surprise of her own.  After years of believing that her father was one of three men her mother lived in a commune with in the year before her birth, she is told by her mother that her father is right there in Templeton, and has been all along.  When her mother refuses to tell her who the lucky man is, she goes on a quest to discover his identity-a quest that takes her back through her family's (and the town's) long and sordid history.

Despite the monster in the lake, and the ghost that lives in Willie's house, there is nothing scary about this book.  The true monsters of Templeton were the people who lived, loved, fought, and died there throughout the years.  In many ways, this book tells the story of a woman who is finally growing up.  Willie, who lived a fairly privileged and idyllic childhood in many ways, just was not able to get herself together out in the "real" world.  Despite the prestigious college she went to, despite her competence in her chosen field (archaeology, the symbolism of which is only now hitting me), Willie can't seem to take that last step into being responsible for herself.  Her pregnancy, her return to her hometown, her realizations about her mother, and most of all her research into her family, finally bring her to a place where she can find herself in the mess of high expectations, failed relationships, and career suicide that she left in her wake.

The story alternates between present-day Willie and characters from the past, and it is this narrative structure that shows how talented Groff really is.  She wrote sections of the novel as the journal of a 19th century woman, as letters between two 18th century women, as the son of the founder of Templeton, as a nameless Indian girl, and as the monster itself.  Each voice felt authentic, and each one revealed a little bit more about the sprawling family of which Willie was a product.  The story is intricate and multi-layered, and I think that the revelations about the various Temples, Upton, Averells, and others were well-paced.  While there is some magical realism, this novel is not really that.  While there are some historical fiction elements, it's not really that, either.  In the end, I think that this book defies any clear-cut description, which to me makes it even more intriguing and enjoyable to read.

2 comments:

  1. What a nicely expressive review. I agree with what you've written--I picked this book up a few years ago when it was first published and was frankly a little surprised with stephen King's blurb, but I thought it was a very impressive first novel. I look forward to more of the author's work--and more of your sensitive reviews, too!

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  2. I can't tell you the number of times I've picked this up at the bookstore and put it back, because I just didn't know enough (or anything) about it. It's so good to see a good review of it! Now it's on my library list. Thanks!

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