Wednesday, October 21, 2015

book review: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

The backstory: After loving both of Lauren Groff's other novels, Arcadia and Fates and Furies, I finally made time to read her debut novel, which was a finalist for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.

The basics: Willie Upton, a direct descendant of the founding family of Templeton, New York (based on Cooperstown, New York, where Groff grew up), returns home after having an affair with her married archaeology professor while on a digging trip. She's surprised to find her hippie mother, Vi, has become a conservative Christian. She's even more surprised to learn her mother has lied to her about her father's identity all her life, so she puts her academic research skills to the test to figure out his identity.

My thoughts: I spent a magical summer in Cooperstown, New York in 2009 when I interned at the Baseball Hall of Fame's Research Library. The town remains one of my favorite places in the world, and while visiting for an all-intern reunion earlier this month, I finally started The Monsters of Templeton. To read the first half while overlooking Lake Otsega was a magical experience:
The view from the Adirondack chairs in front of my
room at the Lake Front Motel.

One view from the Glimmerglass Queen boat tour
of Lake Otesaga (a.k.a Glimmerglass Lake)
This novel has so many things I love in it: Cooperstown, family history, research, and an smart, imperfect, and independent female narrator. It also had one thing I don't typically love: magical realism. But it works here. It feels authentic to the story rather than a convenient trope. By the end of this novel, it proves to be essential and had me questioning if it was magical realism at all.

I loved this novel. To see Cooperstown through the eyes of a native was fascinating. To read Groff's first novel after reading her two newer novels was also a fascinating experience. But all of that is almost a disservice to a novel extraordinary enough to stand on its own.

Favorite passage:  "I knew, even then, what I couldn’t admit that I had known: that now that I could lay claim to more predecessors, to more history, it wouldn’t vastly change the course of my future. Because before a little humanoid came striding across the Bering Strait, and died and left a tiny smidgen of his existence in the tundra to be dug up by people in the unimaginable future, there had probably been a good number of humanoids before him who had also stridden over those same ancient rocks. Because, even though I now had a father, he brought with him such thicknesses of ancestors that it would be impossible to dig and understand them all, and they would be stamped only in the DNA of whatever future children I could have. It was too much. It was impossible to understand it all. And yet, we cling to these things. We pretend to be able to understand. We need the idea of the first humanoid in North America though we will never find him; we need a mass of ancestors at our backs as ballast. Sometimes, we feel it’s impossible to push into the future without such a weight behind us, without such heaviness to keep us steady, even if it is imaginary. And the more frightening the future is, the more complicated it seems to be, the more we steady ourselves with the past. I looked at my father, Sol Falconer, and felt an impossible relief. It didn’t matter, not really, that I had him at last. It didn’t matter, and yet, in my illogical, unfathomable heart, it did. I was glad to have his real, breathing self on that long road behind me. I was glad to know he was there."

The verdict: Part of what drew  me to The Monsters of Templeton was Groff's portrayal of Cooperstown. To read part of this novel there was a special experience, and I felt as though I carried a bit more of Cooperstown with me as I read from afar. But this novel is so much more than an ode to one of my favorite towns. It's a powerful exploration of family and history. It's a beautiful character study. It uses a fictional version of a real place, along with a large cast of fictional characters, to speak large truths about how we shape our identity through history.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: February 5, 2008
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Monsters of Templeton from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lauren Groff's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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  1. This sounds fantastic. I love Groff anyway, and your experience in Cooperstown sounds like it really pushed this one over the top!

  2. This was my first Groff and I really enjoyed it. It persuaded me to read all of her books, but I've found I've enjoyed each subsequent one a little bit less than her debut. I know you feel differently, but I wonder if that might have changed if you'd read them in a different order?

    It's great you've actually been to Cooperstown - I bet that added even more to the enjoyment of the novel :-) Thanks for sharing the photos - it is just how I pictured it from reading the book!


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