Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review 022708

"The Monsters of Templeton," by Lauren Groff

The first question after reading Lauren Groff's debut novel is why did she call it "The Monsters of Templeton"?

Groff starts, "The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass." Instead of writing a 360-page novel about the monster of Lake Glimmerglass and the many ghosts that populate the town, Groff writes about the 'I' in the opening sentence; the 'I' being Willie Upton, and specifically Willie's quest to identify her real father.

The story Willie's mom, Vi, originally gave was that Willie was conceived in San Francisco in the midst of a hippie sex commune. Turns out that isn't true, and Willie's real father is someone in her hometown of Templeton. The reason Willie has come home (Templeton is a stand-in for Groff's hometown of Cooperstown, New York) is she slept with her professor while on an archaeological expedition in Alaska, was caught by the professor's wife, and incidentally became pregnant. Also complicating the plot is the illness of Willie's friend in San Francisco, Clarissa, and Willie's reunions with a range of people from her past in Templeton.

Groff devised a complicated plot with many turns, most of which are plausible and inevitable. Her characters are genuine even if at times their dialogue causes the reader to cringe; it's not that it's unbelievable, it's just regrettable people do speak that way. Groff also deserves praise for her imagination, as she does more than inhabit the mind of Willie Upton. The story switches narrators and texts (journals, letters) throughout, employing characters from Templeton's past to help solve the mystery of who is Willie's father.

Above the plot and characters, Groff creates incredible images. She writes,
I saw, clearly in my mind's eye, the monster in a cold cement warehouse, split open like a fruit. I saw cranes digging among the dead flesh, humans crawling on scaffolding around the corpse like Lilliputians across the body of poor shipwrecked Gulliver, the head bent back so the mouth flopped open and three rungs of shining black teeth bared to the ceiling. Offal extracted and studied and photographed, the creamy skin turning black at the wounds' edges.

Groff makes the a monster plausible and haunting. So while "The Monsters of Templeton" isn't at all about a fifty-foot monster that turns up in a lake, that it's a minor plot point does not seem tacked on.

When Groff titled her novel "The Monsters of Templeton" she was probably referring to a number of things, including some of the monstrous acts Willie Upton's ancestors commit. At the end of the novel, we also learn of another reason for the title. And we do get to the end, as Groff has written a novel that any reader, any age, can enjoy.


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