Kirsten's Reviews > The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
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Dec 27, 2008

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bookshelves: corsetswandsandcoincidence, read-in-2009, xx-chromosome
Recommended for: lovers of genealogical digging, charming maps, baroque letters, and picturesque towns.
Read in May, 2009

Lauren Groff and Karen Russell both seem to be staking out their own little fictional neighborhood: lush prose; fictional worlds with one foot in the "real" and one in the fantastical; forthright and sympathetic young narrators, able to discuss their own predicaments with a good deal of intelligence and precise observation. The one short story I've read by Groff was wonderful, and although this novel is enormously entertaining and I would still recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone in search of an engrossing read, it lacked the unsettling dreaminess of that story - the sharpness; an element of the obscene or the unexpected.

What we have here is a multi-layered novel: a love story to a town (a fictionalized version of Cooperstown, NY); a romp through an age-old "Who's my Daddy?" mystery, complete with packets of letters, journal entries, illustrations, and family trees; a playful appropriation of James Fenimore Cooper's characters (the great man of Cooperstown); and the more straightforward story of the father-digger-upper as she comes home disgraced, makes peace with her mother and self...flirts with the town jock who (surprise!) has a lame job now and has gained a gut...and things of this nature. Oh. And there is a lake monster.

Groff uses the excuse of these various plot layers to explore different voices and literary styles. The monster gets an italicized section. Cooper's characters make first-person cameos. A troupe of male running buddies narrate their section in a group "we." Letters and journal entries are recorded in appropriately antique style, etc., etc. There are so many voices jockeying for attention, that I have to say, I sometimes felt disappointed when the narrative returned its full beam of focus to Willie Upton, the main character. I mean, when you have two 19th century women writing each other crazy, scheming letters and spilling out their mad secrets, or the son of a slave and slaveholder recording his impression of a significant event, it's hard to feel an equal spark of interest for the rather tried-and-true central story. There was also a lot of casual snobbery in the Willie sections that seemed sometimes to well from the author's world view, and not necessarily the character's. I simply wonder if all of these various threads were necessary, because I'm not sure all of them added substantively to the novel.

I'm happy that a writer like Groff is finding success, however, because she and her ilk give me hope for poetic, female-centric fiction gaining widespread attention. There are elements of The Monsters of Templeton that stamp it with the "marketable" tag, and while these elements tended to be cliches, I'm still excited by the quality of the writing and imagination at work. Next time, I would urge Groff to dump the "coming home again" movie-style plot and a few of the repetitive descriptive tropes and go straight for the freakish historical characters of the past.
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