Maggie's Reviews > The Monsters Of Templeton

The Monsters Of Templeton by Lauren Groff
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Mar 03, 08

Read in March, 2008

Wilhelmina ("Willie") Upton - a promising graduate student at Standford University - has fled back to her small, historic hometown of Templeton, New York "steeped in disgrace." The affair with her married grad school mentor has been found out, and, now pregnant with his illegitimate child, she hopes to find solace in her mother, Vivian ("Vi") Upton - a woman whose footsteps Willie has unwittingly fallen into. Herself a child of the free-loving 1960s, Vi had always told Willie that she is the product of one of the many lovers she took while living in a San Francisco hippie commune, but when Willie returns home Vi thinks it best that she finally tell her daughter the truth about her parentage. In an attempt to take her mind off of her own unraveling life, Vi partially lets Willie in on the long-kept secret of her heritage - that she is not a result of "any one of three random hippies in a San Francisco commune," but rather the illegitimate daughter of some "random Templeton man." Thinking it best that Willie have a task to keep her occupied in her time of emotional duress, Vi refuses to reveal this man's identity, but instead insists that Willie solve the mystery for herself. The novel that follows is made up of the random snatches of genealogical research, generational family rumors and gossip, and historical documents Willie digs up to help piece together the epic story that is her family's history, and - most importantly - to discover the true identify of the father who shared her hometown but whom she never knew.

The "monsters" in The Monsters of Templeton are numerous and varied. The day of Willie's homecoming also happens to be the day when the fabled lake monster of the town's Lake Glimmerglass dies, its fifty-foot fish corpse rising to the surface to finally end the several-hundred-year-long debate over its existence. There is an actual ghost that haunts Willie's bedroom, and who occasionally emerges to help her in her quest. And, of course, there are various human monsters who are unmasked as Willie unravels the thread of her family history to reveal betrayal, murder, rape, countless affairs and loads of intrigue. As a whole, the novel is part mystery, part historical fiction, part magical realism, and only partly successful.

Obviously, when you pick up a book knowing that one of its characters is a giant lake monster, you don't really go into it expecting absolute realism, but even still one of my criticisms of the novel is that some of the twists in the plot are too easily arrived at. For instance, when Willie reaches a dead-end in her search, her mother - *tada!* - suddenly remembers owning a sealed envelop of old letters written by the very same relatives Willie is researching at that particular moment. Or, when she's not sure what path to travel down next - *tada!* - a ghost emerges and tell her. There aren't many moments like these, but when they happened I couldn't help but roll my eyes.

Next, is the language. Time and time again, Groff's sentences felt like they were trying way too hard. I wouldn't call it pretentious exactly, but with characters named Marmaduke, Cinnamon, Primus Dwyer, and Ezekiel Flecher; and with ridiculous sentences like, "He slept, openmouthed like a boy, blissfully naked, his smooth rear exposed trustfully to the sky" she is definitely risking absurdity on more than one occasion.

But despite all of this, I couldn't help but enjoy reading this book. The story - although often unbelievable - was engrossing, and the language - while often grating - was also often beautiful, allowing the terrible spots to be quickly and easily laughed away. It's been a long time since I've felt so conflicted by a story, and that alone is reason enough to make me glad to have read it.
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