The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

A monster has long patrolled the depths of the glacial lake in Lauren Groff’s new novel, but the more intrusive beasts in this outstanding literary debut are far more likely to stand on dry land. Or at least they once did. The Monsters of Templeton revels in uncomfortable secrets of the past as its contemporary characters wrangle with slippery questions about the present.

From the book’s opening sentence — “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the 50-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass” — Groff’s ingratiating prose ensnares and drags us into the mixed-up life and twisted genealogy of Willie Upton, the scion of Templeton’s founding family. But Groff, a short-story writer who lives in Gainesville, Florida, isn’t exactly trespassing into Stephen King territory. The Monsters of Templeton is not a pure horror novel. There are supernatural earthquakes large and small in Groff’s slightly magical, slightly sinister version of her hometown of Cooperstown, New York. There’s that startling monster, of course, unleashing a media storm and unhinging the locals; then add the Averell Cottage ghost, a “washed-out inkstain, a violet shadow so vague and shy that it was only perceivable indirectly, like a leftover halo from gazing at a bare bulb too long.”

But forget the ghouls and cheap scares. What Groff is really digging at here is the enigma of the human spirit and how redemption and resilience shape our lives. The Monsters of Templeton is part mystery and part history, generating much of its appeal through the delightfully cranky, persistent Willie and a host of voices — maybe a few too many — from her tangled family tree.

Before her inauspicious return, Willie, 28, was working on her Ph.D. in archaeology at Stanford, thrilled to be in Alaska seeking to unearth evidence of the first human’s path to the New World. A more modern dilemma, however, has dealt a setback: She had an affair with her married professor and subsequently attempted to run over his wife, the dean of students, with a bush plane. Now Willie, who may face criminal charges, has no job and no reason to stay in California. She also realizes she might be pregnant. Where else is she to go but home?

Sanctuary, however, proves elusive. The death of the monster, a village myth turned rotting, stinking fact, unsettles everyone, even the Running Buds, a benign group of post-middle-aged men who form a sort of Greek chorus. The town has morphed from bucolic paradise to tourist trap, its cozy mom-and-pop stores overtaken by baseball-souvenir shops.

“In the past,” Willie says, “the tourists had never really taken up much of our attention. … We thought that a few Little Leaguers wouldn’t be able to change the topography of the town that much. We didn’t expect that they would bring their parents, and that the parents (cheesy, loud people with cellulite under their shorts and minivans soaped up with TEMPLETON OR BUST! and CHESTERTON CHARGERS ARE #1!) would demand cheap restaurants and a better grocery store and plasticky chain hotels and miniature golf.”

But the most shocking discovery comes when Willie’s genial, born-again, former-hippie mom Vi confesses that Willie is not the result of some sticky communal love. On the contrary, her father lives in Templeton and is also a descendant of civic patriarch Marmaduke Temple. Vi refuses to reveal his name, even though she knows her daughter’s specialty is excavating the truth; this obviously contrived development sets Willie off on a summer-long project of discovery.

In her introduction, Groff acknowledges her debt to James Fenimore Cooper, who also changed Cooperstown to Templeton in his novel The Pioneers. She writes that as her novel took shape, Cooper’s characters — Marmaduke Temple, Natty Bumppo, the Mohican chief Chingachgook — “knocked on the door and joined the party.” Funny, then, that Groff’s modern characters possess the real sticking power. There are a few too many ancestors, and some ramble on occasion. To keep them straight, a reader can refer to the genealogy at the end of the book, but, frankly, peeking ahead is cheating.

Still, the ingenious use of photo illustrations of Willie’s relatives is irresistibly effective, and, as Willie works to unearth her father’s identity, Groff turns her story into a meditation on the nature of change and how evolution — of a place, a family, a person — even if it’s difficult and unsettling, can bring joyous rewards. Once in high school, Willie tells us, she swam in Lake Glimmerglass long past midnight. “I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.” Maybe the monster isn’t a monster at all but something more vast, more vital: hope, signaling grand possibilities ahead. Come on, says Groff. Just jump in, and find out.

RATING 7 / 10