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Book Review

Beasts both whimsical and real haunt a woman's story

Lauren Groff is introduced by Stephen King before she speaks about her novel in Florida last month. Lauren Groff is introduced by Stephen King before she speaks about her novel in Florida last month. (Rod millington/sarasota herald tribune via ap)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Karen Campbell
April 15, 2008

The Monsters of Templeton
By Lauren Groff
Voice/Hyperion, 364 pp., $24.95

In Lauren Groff's lively and poetic debut novel "The Monsters of Templeton," the first beast we encounter is Glimmey, the 50-foot mythical monster reputed to have lived in glacial Lake Glimmerglass for decades. When his corpse rises to the surface one bright summer morning, at almost the exact moment when 28-year-old Wilhemina Upton returns to her ancestral home on the lake's shores, it turns the entire town of Templeton, N.Y., upside down. This sad and lovely touch of magical realism sets the story's tone: sweet and slightly wry, poignant yet beautifully understated.

Glimmey, as are many things in Willie's life, was as beloved as he was mysterious, less a figure of fear than of awe and wonder. However, we soon come to find that he is not the only monster to have haunted Templeton over the years. The others are considerably more real and less benign.

Willie returns to her childhood digs following an ill-fated affair with her archeology professor in the final months of her degree research. Confused, depressed, and run down from months of excavations in the Alaskan wilderness, she looks to her quaint hometown and her hippie earth mother for a touchstone. But Glimmey's death transforms her quiet town into a media mecca and Willie's mother Vi has turned inexplicably into a born-again Christian, complete with a zealous boyfriend. "I felt the world around me creak and strain, snapping apart, fiber by fiber, like a rope pulled too tautly," Willie confesses.

To compound Willie's angst, she finds that the story her single mother has told her all these years about her father is a lie. Willie's father is not some random guy Vi hooked up with at a free-love commune, but a respected man who still lives in Templeton. However, Vi won't tell her who it is, only that he is related to the town's very beginnings more than two centuries earlier, and Willie must find this out herself. This sets Willie off on an entirely new kind of archeological dig - one to find her father.

The conceit of Vi's refusal to admit who Willie's father is, knowing that her daughter will find out in the end, is a weak premise, and one of the book's few unconvincing aspects. However, it propels the central mystery quite nicely, plunging Willie into an intriguing search of her ancestral lineage. As she combs through boxes and files of letters, journals and newspaper articles, she gradually unearths not only her own genealogy but the history of the town itself, secrets and scandals included.

Templeton is modeled on Cooperstown, N.Y., where Groff grew up, and she initially began the novel as a love story to her beloved village, then and now. She writes of the area with vivid detail and clear affection, and the book is peppered with maps, photographs, and an ever-evolving family tree that traces Willie's gradual progress to discover her roots.

However, in researching for the town's historical context, Groff delved into the essays and novels of James Fenimore Cooper and, like Cooper, she gave herself the freedom to create a more imaginative vision of a kind of parallel universe. She conscripts some of Cooper's liveliest characters, like Chingachgook and Templeton's founder, Marmaduke Temple, but turns them to her own fascinating ends, bringing them to life with distinctive voices. As "The Monsters of Templeton" bounds back and forth in time, Willie and her ancestors tell stories rich in history, painful with deceit and misery, and triumphant in salvation.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.

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