It might be easy to categorize Lauren Groff’s debut novel The Monsters of Templeton as chick-lit with literary pretensions.
After all, the main character, Willie Upton, returns to her hometown in self-imposed exile, disgraced and unsure how to find redemption. Willie’s single mother has issues. Her best friend has issues. Men are generally cads, jerks, comic foils not to be taken seriously, or manipulative bastards—or, at best, they move through the world oblivious to nearly everything around them.
There’s lots of soul searching, lots of feminine empowerment, lots of women-know-best-wink-wink, nudge-nudge, don’t-we-sisters?
But Groff’s novel is nearly perfect in all ways.
The writing, the characters, and the insights into life all feel full and fully realized. The Monsters of Templeton is a rich, wonderfully readable literary achievement.
Templeton is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Cooperstown, New York, complete with a baseball museum, a national literary icon, the state historical society, and a deep glacial lake—Lake Glimmerglass—that forms the headwaters of the Susquehanna River.
The lake, mysterious, ubiquitous, and apparently bottomless, is home to a lake monster—think Loch Less Monster but in upstate New York—which bobs dead to the surface on the same morning Willie returns to town.
While the novel does not center around the monster, the monster is very much an integral part of the town’s character and mythos. Templeton is well-situated in the landscape of magical realism, which gives the entire story an undercurrent of possibility and wonder.
But The Monsters of Templeton is much more concerned with ghosts and skeletons in closets than monsters. As if her shambled life isn’t enough to deal with, Willie discovers on her return home that her mother is turning into a different person and she has a life-long secret she’s been hiding from her daughter.
Willie spends the rest of the book trying to uncover the answer, a quest that takes her back through the generations of her family all the way to the founding of the town. The women, and some of the men, that she meets in those historical jaunts provide a colorful cast of supporting characters that shed light on Willie’s own quest. Groff gives those voices from the past ample opportunity to speak on their own—and they have secrets to tell.
At times, Willie displays the smug self-absorption of a late-twentysomething member of Gen Y who’s gotten too cosmopolitan for her small hometown. She’s hard to live with on the page when she gets that way, but her crappy attitude never last too long before her underlying vulnerability or ability to laugh at herself and the world come into play. For good or bad, Willie actually makes for excellent company.
Templeton, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad place after all, despite its secrets and skeletons and dead lake monsters. It’s a place where all sorts of things are possible—like redemption, for instance.
But don’t expect The Monsters of Templeton to follow conventions, and don’t expect Groff to be categorized easily. Her smart, sometimes sassy writing defies easy classification even as it dazzles.
Groff has breathed a little magic into her milieu, making it a pleasure to get lost in every page.