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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 famous author.

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 Bumppo.)

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 mother's.

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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