Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

In the opening of Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, a prehistoric monster floats to the surface of Glimmerglass lake on the day the narrator (Willie Upton) returns home, pregnant and disappointed in herself. That's the beginning of a novel packed with mysteries to unravel, and loaded with enough mysticism for a season of The Twilight Zone.

from here
I love magical realism for the surprises it promises us. Like sci-fi and fantasy, for magical realism to work the characters must inhabit a self-sustaining world, a place who rules and possibilities are consistent no matter how fantastic they seem. Think of your favorite fantastic television series (I think of Doctor Who and Chuck), and you'll find what holds it together is that the series holds to the rules it has established.

So, The Monsters of Templeton gives us monsters, pyrokenesis and a ghost. But the true monsters are, as always, men. It's more than an exercise of magical realism, it's also a detective novel.

In a twist on the normal who-done-it, Willie's mother, Vi, reveals that she actually does know who Willie's father is. He's not a long lost hippie boyfriend; he's a man living in Templeton. While it would be unfair to expose him (to Vi's thinking), it would be fair if Willie can turn her impressive deductive powers to tracking him down. Willie's only clue is that the man is a distant relative of Willie and Vi through town founder Marmaduke Temple.

Willie sets to work, slowly reassembling her self-confidence and self-worth as the mystery unravels (or, rather, as the mystery ravels deeper and deeper, revealing layers of skeletons in the family closet). The plot staggers under its own weight at times, but it never crumbles.

The most unifying part of The Monsters of Templeton, though, is Templeton itself. The town is modeled on Cooperstown, NY, and takes advantage of the fictionalization of Cooperstown done by James Fenimore Cooper in The Pioneers. Templeton's characters include Willie's boyfriends (guys she used to know who never really left), a crusty old librarian who steps to help Willie solve her mystery when things look bleak, a Baptist preacher, and a pack of runners who serve as Greek chorus and reprobates.

In another novel, I'd argue that the cast is too large and the plot too convoluted (I haven't yet mentioned Willie's best friend, who exists only through the telephone line for most of the book, nor have I mentioned the lengths of the story that unfold through old diaries and letters). Maybe my good sense is being overwhelmed by nostalgia for my own hometown in Upstate New York. But The Monsters of Templeton struck a chord in me, giving me access to a place that is simultaneously familiar and fantastic.

Book 21 of 52

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