A Genealogical Treasure Hunt Without the Treasure

Review: The Monster of Templeton by Lauren Groff

by Wynter K Miller

Lauren Groff’s first novel is the kind of book that I found compelling enough to finish, but suspect will not be compelling enough to remember. It’s the kind of book that reminds you that writing is a craft and that gifts like those on display in Florida are honed (in Groff’s case, over the span of a decade).

The premise upon which The Monsters of Templeton is built is an attention-grabber. The first sentence sums is up rather nicely: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the 50-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” The source of the narrator’s disgrace is an unplanned pregnancy from an affair with her married college professor. The monster — or rather, its corpse — ultimately has very little to do with the arc of the story. But still, both serve to provide at least the patina of intrigue.

Willie Upton’s return to her hometown, however, becomes more than just an escape from scandal (and her professor’s angry wife). Within the first days of her arrival, Willie’s mother, Vi, a tradition-bucking stalwart of single-parenthood, confesses that Willie’s father is not, as she had always claimed, an unknown hippie from a drug-laced stint at a commune in San Francisco. Instead, he is a Templeton, a native and current resident. But, aside from one hint — like Vi herself, Willie’s father is a descendant of the town’s illustrious founder, Marmaduke Temple — Vi refuses to identify the man in question . . . which is where the story both expands and falls apart.

Most of Monsters is a sort of genealogical treasure hunt. Willie has a graduate-level education in archeology and she is intent on unearthing her mother’s secrets. But the scope of the story quickly becomes unmanageable. Groff moves back and forth between the present and the past, offering snippets of history spanning more than 200 years. There is a cast of characters — Willie’s ancestors, introduced variously and haphazardly in snippets of letters and journals and historical papers — that manages to be, somehow, both scandalous and colorless (I confess I can only remember the name of one of the historical figures, and I finished the book less than six hours ago).

The characters that populate present-day Templeton are better-developed, though still lack believability. Willie entertains a confusing affair with a high school acquaintance whose intentions are never fully explained and whom Willie’s interest in is never fully resolved. Vi is ensconced in a relationship with her clergyman; she is also, to Willie’s chagrin, a newly born-again Christian — a bit of character development that felt strange and superfluous. And, Willie’s best friend, who lives in San Francisco and is struggling with a debilitating lupus diagnosis, makes periodic cameos in a number of dramatic phone calls. I can remember the names of all of these modern-day characters, but I cannot, for the life of me, articulate a justification for their presence in the story . . . . And something similar might be said of Groff’s monsters: there are ghosts, a firestarter (complete with pyrokinetic abilities), a serial poisoner, garden-variety murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, and sexists. There is also, of course, a Templeton version of the Loch Ness monster.

Simply put: Groff tried to do too much. Perhaps if I were familiar with James Fenimore Cooper (from whose novels, apparently, Groff borrowed characters and lore) I would have appreciated Monsters more. But as is, I’ve read nothing by Cooper and felt that Groff’s historical mystery was less like a puzzle and more like a chaotic, badly-glued collage.

Rating: 2 stars

Favorite Lines
I thought I would be a different person, a better one, had I only been raised in a large place. Like a fish, I thought, I would’ve grown to fit my bowl.

When I was small and easily wounded, books were my carapace. If I were recalled to my hurts in the middle of a book, they somehow mattered less. My corporeal life was slight, the dazzling one in my head was what really mattered. Returning to books was coming home.

Amazing thing, fiction. Tells you more, sometimes, about the writer than the writer can tell you about himself in any memoir.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California. @wynterkm