Childhood typically includes a period
of sleepless nights and interrupted playtimes caused
by the fearful sense that monsters lurk under beds
or behind attic doors. Thankfully, this phobia
passes for most little ones as they mature and
monsters are relegated to movie screens or campfire
stories. By adulthood, monsters are pure fantasy
hardly a subject of concern or any thought at all.
Not so in Lauren Groff's Templeton (modeled after
real life Cooperstown, New York) where monsters both real
and metaphorical are oddly prominent in daily adult
life. The metaphorical goblins are more menacing
than the fleshy ones, however; they slither and
hover in the form of family secrets, small town
prejudices, faulty assumptions and other ills of
Groff intended to write a book about a town she cherishes, showcasing its rich history alongside its present-day menagerie of baseball fame and small town life. She accomplishes this goal with great success, adding to her tribute a wild tale of messy genealogy and unorthodox family ties. In The Monsters of Templeton's opening pages, the reader quickly senses that the main character's distaste for her childhood village can only lead to a reversal of that feeling as the story unfolds. Other twists, whether they involve the bizarre (expired underwater monsters) or the familiar (those dreaded awkward encounters with old high school classmates) are a bit harder to predict.
Just as her mother, Vivienne, did years ago, protagonist Wilhemina (Willie) Sunshine Upton retreats to Templeton in a sorry state. Panicked, she has returned to Templeton and her mother's home only as a last resort, but gradually accepts that her hometown is undeniably linked to her identity. Willie's version of soul-searching becomes an obsessive separating of truth from myth in her family history and Templeton lore. Willie's family ties are tightly linked to the village saga because Upton mother and daughter are infamously descended from the town father, Marmaduke Temple. As Willie's days unravel in the present, readers are also introduced to generations of Temples and other important figures of Templeton history. As a result, the book's narrative is punctuated by vignettes of relatives in Willie's prestigious family characters whom Groff modeled after real Cooperstown figures as well as characters in James Fenimore Cooper novels.
If one were to complain about Monsters, the overwhelming number of characters and voices introduced throughout the root story would be the most likely grievance. Yet for some readers, this layering of history and modern day will be a large part of the book's appeal. The determination must be based on personal taste and reading mood. This is a book for readers wishing to be enveloped by their reading, willing to be engrossed, and desirous of a novel that requires them to devote their full attention to its pages. For those who are browsing for a breezy read, Groff's work is probably not the title to pick off of the shelf.
The Monsters of Templeton, which took Groff over three years and four drafts to complete, is an admirable, heavily-researched accomplishment and at the same time, a good read categories for which many books can only be labeled one or the other. Readers of this fictional ode to Cooperstown, New York will be rewarded by talented, complex writing and a multi-layered story with more than a touch of fantasy, plus a family tree littered with black sheep.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the November 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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