The Monsters of Templeton

June 6th, 2008 by Rainey

I recently finished Lauren Groff’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and highly recommend it. It defies genre stereotyping, making it, in my mind, that much more interesting. It is, at once, a coming of age story, a mystery, a ghost story, a historical narrative, an ode to a hometown, and a romance. Though you are never sure who is in love.

Groff grew up in Cooperstown, New York, home of the baseball hall of fame and James Fenimore Cooper. Her early days in that small town directly frame her love story for the town of Templeton in the novel. Cooper, in The Pioneers, describes an upstate New York town called Templeton. Somehow, in researching Cooper’s works and her own hometown, Groff begins to create her own version of Templeton. Part fiction, part fact, it is purely fascinating to read about the town she creates.

Sure it has a baseball museum. It even has its own namesake author styled after Cooper. And Cooper’s own Natty Bumpo and others make appearances in the novel. She is not trying to hide what she is doing. But then this town also has its own lake monster. It has a resident ghost in the protagonist’s childhood home. It has a Greek chorus made up of middle age male joggers. And it has Willie Upton, the protagonist, who has run home because she fears she is pregnant with her PhD advisor’s baby after an illicit affair in the Alaskan tundra as they searched for archaeological evidence of the first human life in North America. When his wife finds out, Willie tries to run her down with a plane and then heads home, sick and tired. Literally.

The same night that Willie arrives home, the monster in the lake dies. And her own reawakening to self begins as she unravels the history of her family’s past and her own personal history, throwing herself into a new brand of archeology in her own home town.

What I loved about this book is hard to explain. I liked its episodic style. The way it interwove faux historical narrative with the main story. The mysteries it hid and uncovered. The way it served as an ode to place and home. It was also beautifully written.

I found myself wondering about the work of writing as I read. How are novels created? They say to write what you know. But as I read Groff’s first novel, I began to see that you not only write what you know, but you also write in order to learn what you know. In writing she rebuilt her home and transformed it into something new while also managing to revere it and honor it in her work. It is certainly a work of fiction. But like all good fiction it teaches us, at its root, about things that are true.

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