Onyx reviews: The Monsters of
Templeton by Lauren Groff
On the day that Willie Upton returns home to Templeton, New York, an enormous
monster floats to the surface of Glimmerglass Lake, dead of old age. Townspeople
have suspected for generations that something like the Loch Ness creature lurked
beneath Glimmerglass's dark waters like a bad omen, but no one has ever truly
seen the beast before. Now that it is dead, the residents of Templeton feel like
some crucial part of their history has been lost.
Note, however, that the title of Lauren Groff's impressive debut novel is The
Monsters of Templeton. Plural.
Until recently, Willie was a grad student at Stanford, on an archeological
expedition to Alaska searching for evidence of the earliest human occupation of
the continent. She was also sleeping with her doctoral advisor and escaped from
the 49th state after a violent confrontation with the man's wife. By the time
she gets home, she's uncertain if she is still enrolled at Stanford or if the
wife will be pressing charges.
She also believes she is pregnant.
Willie is a needy, self-absorbed young woman, caught up in
her own issues, demanding of her friends and still hopelessly in love with her
advisor, despite the fact that he seems to have lost interest in her. At least,
he isn't pursuing her across the continent like Willie wishes he would. In spite
of these flaws, she is a likeable enough protagonist.
She is also a multithreaded descendant of the Colonial town's founding
father, Marmaduke Temple, regarded as something of a living fossil. Despite how
well her maternal genealogy has been charted, there is a gaping hole in her
family tree. Her mother, Vivian, a former hippie who has recently found
religion, always claimed that Willie was conceived in a commune in San Francisco
and could be the offspring of any of a number of unidentifiable men. It does
not speak well of Willie's intelligence that she took her mother's story of a
stubborn ten-and-a-half month gestation period at face value.
Shortly after Willie moves back, Vivian admits that the father is one of the
town's residents, though she won't say who and the man in question doesn't know
he has a child. Perceiving that Willie needs a task to keep her from wallowing
in self-pity over the pickle she's gotten herself into, Vivian provides a single
clue: Willie's father belongs on the Temple family tree, too, but through an
undocumented, illegitimate branch. Until now, Willie's awareness of her lineage
has been limited to a few noted ancestors, including Jacob Franklin Temple, the
Groff makes no secret of the fact that Templeton is really Cooperstown, the
home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which features in the story as a symbol of
the town's decline from respect and prestige to mass popularity. She has adopted
the same alias for the town that James Fenimore Cooper used in one of his
novels. (The cast also borrows some of Cooper's classic characters, like Natty
There are many layers to the past, Willie discovers. Her own includes
relationships with the townspeople formed when she grew up in Templeton.
However, the heralded Temple dynasty has a deeper past, and not all of it is
pretty. Enter the other monsters. During the weeks she spends contemplating her
future, Willie simultaneously unravels the complicated strands of her lineage,
an archeological expedition that turns up previously unknown documents and facts
about her ancestry.
While the story is told mostly from Willie's perspective, her ancestors are
also allowed to take the stage and explain themselves, as are some of the living
townspeople, including several strong candidates for her father. These alternate
viewpoints are revealed in the form of letters, diaries or journals, or
occasionally through narratives. These stories must be told—the force of history
demands it—and it is a tribute to Groff's skill that she manages to capture the
thoughts and mindsets of so many diverse people whose lives span over two
centuries. The book also features vintage photographs that purport to be of the
residents of the various limbs of her family tree.
As Willie's understanding of her family tree grows, it is frequently updated
in the pages of the book—and it's a good thing, too, because it is a daunting
task for readers to keep track of who's who, as well as all the parallel plots
that arise, including Willie's renewed relationships with old flames from school
and the long-distance complication of her friend Clarissa's illness.
As Willie uncovers new connections, not only does she turn up evidence of
wandering eyes and dalliances with slaves and native Americans, she also
discovers proof of previously undetected murders that go all the way back to
Marmaduke Temple (aka Judge William Cooper) himself. Children with red hair, one
of the Temple family's genetic markers, show up in the unlikeliest of places.
Unwanted and inconvenient pregnancies abound, including Willie's and her
The book has tinges of magic realism beyond the presence of the exotic
monster. Willie has a personal ghost that has been one of her lifelong
companions and which introduces a deus ex machina element into the late stages
of Willie's investigation. And the monster's story doesn't end with its
death—the finale of its tale proves to be one of the book's most
moving and poignant vignettes.
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