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Lauren Groff – The Monsters of Templeton

August 20, 2009

96. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)

Length: 366 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction, with touches of historical fiction, mystery, and magical realism thrown in.

Started: 02 August 2009
Finished: 08 August 2009

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Literate Housewife recommended it to me when I asked for books with intertwining historical and present-day storylines at The 4 Rs Challenge.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 June 2009.
Verdict? Keeper.

Researching family,
Willie finds out more secrets
than she bargained for.

Summary: Willie Upton, a graduate student in archaeology, returns home to Templeton, New York for the summer. Templeton should be welcoming – it’s a small town, and Willie is the last descendant of the town’s founder – but it’s not quite the homecoming that she’d imagined, for Willie is pregnant with her (married) advisor’s child. Neither is the town quite the same: on the day she returns home, the corpse of a giant monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass, simultaneously throwing the town into an uproar and casting a strange pall over the inhabitants. To make matters worse, Willie’s mother Vi lets slip that Willie’s father is not an anonymous San Franciscan hippie, but is in fact someone from Templeton itself. Obsessed with figuring out her parentage while avoiding the truth about her current situation, Willie digs into her family tree, which is also the history of a town, and discovers more than one secret buried in time.

Review: The number one word I have seen connected with this book is “ambitious”, and it’s certainly apt. Groff tries to do a *lot* with this book – multiple voices, multiple periods of history, epistolary portions, sprawling family trees, sprinkles of magical realism, incorporation of James Fenimore Cooper’s famous characters as real people, a coming-of-age story, and more. Ambitious, no doubt, particularly for a first novel… but the thing is, she pulls most of it off. I think she particularly did a nice job with creating distinct, believable voices for each chapter, regardless of the narrating character’s sex, age, or historical milieu. I did have a little bit of a problem as to how all of the pieces fit together into the novel – some are documents that Willie finds during the course of her research, but many are not, and the context in which illiterate characters are speaking to us as a reader is never clear. I almost would have preferred that *none* of the historical sections had been presented as actual documents (and they are, too, often with photos, family trees, or page edges drawn around the words), rather than half in context and half without.

I’ve never read any James Fenimore Cooper, so I have no idea how well those elements are worked in, but Templeton as a thinly-veiled Cooperstown is excellently drawn. At first I was a little confused as to why Groff didn’t just call it Cooperstown and be done with it, the veil is so thin, but as I read I realized by tweaking it just a little out of reality, she can play with the history, play with the people who inhabit it, and add in lake monsters and firestarters and all sorts of things without offending anyone. (Plus, hey, look, someone else who thinks western New York is a place where magic could happen!) Groff’s writing style (when she’s not writing “in voice”) is fluid, fancy, and easily readable, of the sort that skirts along the border of lyrical without ever quite tipping over into pretentious, and it excellently sets the mood for the rest of the story.

Overall, even though all of the pieces didn’t fit together quite as solidly as I would have hoped, each of the pieces in and of itself was well-done. I found it very easy to get absorbed in this book, and thoroughly enjoyable throughout. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for what Groff produces in the future. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think people who normally read either literary fiction or historical fiction will enjoy this book, particularly folks for whom large family trees are like literary candy. However, while I didn’t find the magical realism elements to be out of place or distracting, if the phrase “lake monster” sends you screaming for the hills, then maybe you’re best suited looking elsewhere.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The Literate Housewife Review, My Cozy Book Nook, Fantasy Book Critic, Book Club Girl, Booking Mama, Shelf Love, Farm Lane Books Blog, Just a (Reading) Fool
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.

Cover Thoughts: After having read the book, I can see how the cover fits together, and I like how each of the little scenes are tied together in a family tree, since that’s a big part of the story… but at the same time, I don’t know that the black-and-white-and-red silhouettes really capture the tone of the book for me, and I definitely don’t think the cover alone would have convinced me to pick it up.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 51: “Parked there, we watched a boy trying to stuff an enormous duffel throught the door of the dorm, his breath in the cold rising like a furze around his head.” – another name for gorse, any spiny shrub of the genus Ulex, of the legume family, native to the Old World, esp. U. europaeus, having rudimentary leaves and yellow flowers and growing in waste places and sandy soil.
  • p. 58: ““Imagine human history,” he said on the first day of our graduate seminar, gesturing as was his wont in great, grandiose sweeps, “as palimpsest upon palimpsest. The deeper you scratch, the more layers you reveal.”” – a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.
  • p. 131: “And I was growing fond of Peter Lieder and the caprine sleeping woman because I spent most of my day in the library looking for – and rejecting – ancestors.” – of or pertaining to goats. (Ah, like Capricorn. I’d forgotten that she’d previously compared the woman to a goat.)
  • p. 132: “Ruth and Leah were on the Averell side; their compeer on the Temple side was Henry Franklin Temple, Sarah’s father.” – an equal in rank, ability, accomplishment, etc.; peer; colleague.
  • p. 156: “Only good thing Duke brought was his kind son Richard and frailish wife Elizabeth, who sent up to our hut a kilderkin of whiskey every Christmas, without fail, who once met me on the street and pressed my hand.” – a unit of capacity, usually equal to half a barrel or two firkins.
  • p. 339: “…even the children forgot their fears of the water and zipped around on their tiny water skis and in their luffing Sunfish.” – to set (the helm of a ship) in such a way as to bring the head of the ship into the wind.
21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2009 6:52 pm

    I might be one of those people who scream over “lake monster”!!! Nevertheless, your review has gotten me interested!

    • August 20, 2009 8:03 pm

      rhapsodyinbooks – Well, it’s not a scary lake monster, if that lessens the screaming. :)

  2. August 20, 2009 7:19 pm

    I have looked at this book a few times in the store. I love cover. And I’m a sucker for magical realism. :)

    • August 20, 2009 8:03 pm

      heidenkind – Visually, the cover is very pretty and very striking. It just doesn’t scream “read me!” for no real reason I can explain.

  3. August 20, 2009 7:20 pm

    I’m glad you liked it, although not as much as I did. That book was magical to me and that might have been because it was my very first ARC. I was hooked from the first sentence. Interesting how the circumstances under which you read a book can play a role in how you feel about it. It will always hold a special place in my heart and I love for others to read it.

    This reminds me that I need to read my recommendation!

    • August 20, 2009 8:05 pm

      Lit House – Thanks for the recommendation! I absolutely have books that I love as much because of the circumstances as because of the books themselves, and I’m always weird about recommending them to others… but in this case, you were right on track!

  4. August 20, 2009 7:54 pm

    Great review! I just finished Lauren Groff’s latest, a short story collection called “Delicate Edible Birds,” which was very good. I’ve been curious about this one … now it has been added to the list. Thanks!

    • August 20, 2009 8:06 pm

      Melissa – I remember seeing a lot of people reading Delicate Edible Birds a while back but I didn’t make the connection that it was the same author. I may have to seek that one out!

  5. August 20, 2009 7:59 pm

    I’ve seen lots of great reviews for this book, so I thought it would be one I’d want to read, but lake monster? Hm, now I’m not so sure.

    • August 20, 2009 8:08 pm

      bermudaonion – Nah, I was kidding, don’t be scared of the lake monster. It’s not really a focus of the book, it’s more in the background, and if you don’t like the idea of real lake monster, it works just as well as symbolic lake monster. I think you’d probably like this book, even with the lake monster.

      …and now I’ve typed the words “lake monster” so many times they’re starting to look meaningless. :)

  6. unfinishedperson permalink
    August 20, 2009 9:59 pm

    I really like how you put together your reviews, and your assessment about falls with where mine was, with an 8 out of 10 I gave it being comparable to your 4 out of 5.

    I will add your review as a link to mine at the bottom of the post here later tonight. Right now a thunderstorm is starting so I need to sign out, but will add here later.

    • August 24, 2009 8:55 am

      unfinishedperson – Especially considering that I use half-stars, 4/5 is exactly comparable to an 8/10. :)

  7. August 21, 2009 12:24 am

    What you say about this book sounds like about what I remember thinking of it – I know I read it! It didn’t quite come together, in the end. I do looove the cover though.

    • August 24, 2009 8:56 am

      Jenny – The cover’s growing on me the more I think about it, but the fact remains that it never made me interested enough to pick it up before now.

  8. August 21, 2009 5:34 pm

    I’d run screaming from a lake monster in a lake I’m actually AT, but not in a book. I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages.

    • August 24, 2009 8:57 am

      Carrie – Hee hee! My family used to call anything under the surface in a lake – weeds, branches, whatever – lake monsters.

      “AAAARH! Something just touched my leg! What was that?”
      “Lake monster.”

  9. August 22, 2009 4:58 pm

    lol at Carrie’s comment :P I do like huge family trees, and fictional lake monsters don’t sound bad to me either.

  10. August 24, 2009 8:59 am

    Nymeth – What I particularly enjoyed about the family trees is that it starts out very basic, and then at the end of each chapter, as Willie gets further in her research, the tree keeps getting revised and added to.


  1. August Wrap-Up: Books and Reviews « Fyrefly's Book Blog
  2. The Monsters of Templeton « an unfinished person (in this unfinished universe)
  3. Review: ‘The Monsters of Templeton’ by Lauren Groff

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