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Published in 2008 by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion Books.

Shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers, 2008.

Willie Upton returns to her idyllic Templeton homestead in disgrace, on the very day that a colossal, antediluvian monster’s carcass is dredged from the depths of the town’s lake, Glimmerglass. Pregnant with the child of her (married) thesis advisor, Willie is thrown another bombshell by her repentant hippie-turned-Baptist mother, Vivienne: Willie’s father is not the random, faceless commune-dweller she’d previously been led to believe, but a living, breathing Templetonian man—alive, well and in their midst. As Willie’s return to her postcard-worthy homestead turns from mere refuge to sleuthing around for clues to her mystery dad’s identity, she learns far more than she bargained, about the living and the dead, about men and monsters alike.

Have you ever bought a book, or picked one from a library shelf, based on the recommendation of another writer, on its jacket? Such was the case with my acquisition of The Monsters of Templeton. The curious thing is this: the writerly acclamation that drew me in was proffered by a master of contemporary fiction, whose work I’ve not yet read. Here’s what he had to say.

“Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, is everything a reader might have expected from this gifted writer, and more…There are monsters, murders, bastards, and ne’er-do-wells almost without number. I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end.”

What The Monsters of Templeton accomplishes best is its portrayal of another world. Groff’s hand is loving – this place is crafted on the bones and imagination of a town beloved to the author herself. Though we are provided with a map of the town at the novel’s beginning, I daresay that one is not needed. With an eye for architectural detail and geographical precision, the author enables us to trace out the Running Buds’ Route in our sneakers. We, too, will wish to pelt out of the stuffy confines of Franklin House, hurling ourselves into the dually secretive and embracing arms of Glimmerglass Lake. Just as Willie does, we’ll sit on the steps of the town library with the boy from our childhood, who manages to amuse and amaze us with perplexing certainty—and we, too, will be tempted not to leave. There are few, if any, falterings in the construction of space and place in this book, and this serves to reward the telling of the tale itself, making it gleam all the brighter.

As for the story, it is far from singular. Indeed, many yarns crave the attention of being the finest-spun, and this becomes a balancing act in which Groff occasionally slips. For instance, the sideline concerns of Willie’s idiosyncratic and ailing college bestie, Clarissa (with Clarissa’s long-suffering husband Sully, in tow) strike out, in terms of holding interest, far more than they score points for emotional appeal. I read most of Willie and Clarissa’s expected fallings-out (and charming recoveries) with thinly veiled impatience, eager to return to finer exposition.

Thankfully, of fine and varied exposition, there is no shortage—a variety of presentation woos us to Groff’s creative skill. Most of the alternative storytelling methods come to us through Willie’s research into her paternal parentage. The documents she uncovers often threaten to overpower our protagonist’s own voice in their desire to be told. The ghosts are alive and strong in The Monsters of Templeton, and for fiction that invokes the past in any meaningful way, this is grand. Willie feels the pull of her ancestry just as deeply, on reading the journal of Sarah Franklin Temple Upton (an abridged version of which is presented to us). After her all-nighter of frenzied absorption, Willie reflects.

“All that night, I read three hundred pages of wildness in my great-grandmother’s tight sepia script, and in the morning it was as if Templeton had fallen under an enchantment…I felt almost as if Sarah’s Templeton were layered atop my own; as if a sheet of tracing paper had settled upon the rooftops of my village…I could feel the pull of the ghosts in the lake, knew that if I looked out onto the lawn those terrible private people of whom Sarah spoke would be standing there, in military lines all the way down the lawn, all looking up into my window, deep holes for eyes.”

In addition to the increasingly frantic journal entries of Sarah Franklin Temple Upton, we are invited to peruse several other artefacts that Willie unearths in her bid for father-discovery:

♣ a host of revealingly-captioned portraits and photographs

♣ the almost literally poisoned-pen correspondence of two treacherously disparate women (my favourite, naturally)

♣ the tales of a long-gone people, from their own tongues (including a spectacular envisioning of some significant days in the life of James Fenimore Cooper’s titular character from The Last of the Mohicans)

♣ a family tree, curated by Willie, that grows alongside her own fleshing-out of her curious and captivating lineage (This reminded me of Faith Jackson, the protagonist of Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon [reviewed here] and her own incrementally burgeoning family tree, documented in similar fashion.)

The Monsters of Templeton is a first novel of remarkable ambition—that it hardly falters in translating this ambition into nigh-impeccable readability is laudable. Still… and still, alas, the ambition moves me more than its overall execution. There is too much discomfiting distance between what I loved:

♣ Groff’s startlingly beautiful segments of great writing

♣ the lavish attention to detail and sincerity in building Templeton from air and inspiration

♣ Ahhh, the monster (more on that denizen of the Glimmerglass deep, anon)

and what left me cold:

♣ most of the Clarissa and Sully interludes

♣ evident unbridged lacunae betwixt Groff’s gorgeous prose and Groff’s okay prose, since the former is so startlingly good that it renders the latter all-the-duller

♣ uneasy diction, usually to do with too-muchness: being overfed on Turkish Delight still prompts nausea, despite the delicious path there

For all this, my final impressions attached to this first reading are both haunting and enduring. Even if there were no other points to recommend it, there would be The Monster, our aquatic acquaintance, who is rendered in Groff’s finest, most poetic prose. We meet it in its death, yet we feel that we have understood something essential of its life, and the ways in which it lived. We feel that we have held something of it in our hands, and to our hearts, at the novel’s close.

The Monsters of Templeton reminds us of the distinctions we make between what is monstrous, and what is truly fair… and how awfully wrong even the best-intentioned of us tend to be.

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