What Lurks Beneath
Lifelong readers will understand that the odds of discovering a novel that lives up to the term's adjectival meaning grow increasingly smaller as time goes on. It's a matter of familiarity with narrative and literary tropes: the more books one digests, the more difficult it becomes to find something that truly surprises and delights in the same way all new novels used to, once upon a time. But that's exactly what makes the experience of the gems like Lauren Groff's "The Monsters of Templeton" so special.
Ms. Groff's debut novel gives us Wilhelmina "Willie" Upton, a 28-year-old Ph.D. student who returns to her hometown after a disastrous affair with one of her professors. The premise could stretch easily into a tired cliché, but it soon becomes obvious that this is not the just story of a shamed and conflicted young woman. Rather, it's the story of her town, Templeton, and the spirit (and spirits) of community – both contemporaneous and historical – that nurse her back to emotional health.
Templeton (based on the author's own hometown of Cooperstown, N.Y.) has a long and closely-knit history. Willie has always known that she could trace her ancestry back along two separate lineages to the town's founder, Marmaduke Temple (a fictionalization of James Fenimore Cooper). But upon her unexpected arrival, Willie's mother, Vivienne, finally reveals a secret: Willie's father is not the stranger she has always been led to believe, but a familiar Templetonian face. More than that, a man who is also a direct descendant of Marmaduke Temple.
So begins Willie's quest to uncover the truth about her father and, thus, herself. But her personal journey – a combination of recollection, research and reconnecting with old acquaintances – serves as a conduit through which the history and mythologies of the town itself flow, including the legend of a preternatural lake monster that echoes the self-image the community holds of itself. Reflected in the guise of a mystical and ancient creature, Templeton itself feels unique yet perennial, and a bit ethereal – the kind of place everyone wishes they were from.
As much as Willie's narrative arc carries with it the larger story of Templeton, the novel itself channels the soul of the author's hometown. As she explains in the author's note, Ms. Groff set out to write a history of Cooperstown but found that fact could not contain the essence of her affection for the place. Instead, she turned to fiction as a way of conveying a different kind of truth.
And so, with her unassuming yet poignant prose, she has wrought a quietly brilliant story of family and foundations, nostalgia and hope. Like the community to which it gives life, "The Monsters of Templeton" contains a bit of everything: historical fiction and fantasy, memoir and mythology, saga and bildungsroman all rolled into one. It's like reading a novel for the first time.