"The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass. It was one of those strange purple dawns that color July there, when the bowl made by the hills fills with a thick fog and even the songbirds sing timorously, unsure of day or night."
So begins Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, published by Hyperion in 2008, and it is a many-layered story of secrets -- both within a family and within a town. From the moment Wilhelmina "Willie" Upton returns to her hometown of Templeton, more events begin to unfurl, of which she has just recently left many to forget.
What a true disaster Willie's made of everything, really. A mess by her own making and embarrassed by her mistakes and poor personal choices, Willie is now a woman in her late twenties who, although is a smart archaeology grad student, can't really seem to make a good personal decision when it comes to men. She has a devastating end to her scandalous affair with her older, and married Professor, resulting in a pregnancy, and she feels even more intense guilt as she runs away, since she feels that she has abandoned her best friend, Clarissa in San Francisco, who is suffering from a devastating illness that requires many a hospital visit and treatment. It's really much too much for Willie to take in and manage, and since she's afraid that she will be kicked out of school because of her scandalous affair, she returns with her head hung low back to her childhood home and town and especially to her mother, maybe just to escape for a while to wait until either the dust settles, or some form of clarity manages to rise in the muddle of it all. Her mother, Vi, has a Bohemian past but is now a Sunday church regular, and has always raised Willie with the story that her father could have been any one of three hippies at a commune, but she now reveals a secret she's always kept, and which she now sets upon Willie to uncover the truth, if only to distract Willie from the massive mess she's made.
With the monster's corpse coming to the lake's surface, it brings a change to the town. The monster has always been myth, legend, speculation, but the monster was always believed to exist by the town (as much as a monster's existence can truly be believed, though) and no one truly knew the quiet, goodness it held. A whirl of visitors now floods into town to see, record, and report on the monster. Prior to this great event, the many visitors to the town only were tourists visiting the baseball museum, one fashioned after Groff's own home of Cooperstown.
As the story moves between Willie's current day and in snapshots of her family's past, she uses her archaeology training to dig further and deeper and uncover a truth that is far greater than any expedition she was previously on with her lover. Willie reads from the 1700s to the early 1900s in diary entries, personal letters, and newspaper clippings to piece together who may actually be her father.
It's an amazing story, full of secrets, ghosts, a monster of a lake, intertwined with love, sadness, regret. Amazing and quirky characters fill the pages, both real people in history polished with a little bit of fiction, along with brilliant humor and dark pain gracing each moment. I found myself comfortable and lolling in the story as I would imagine I would be in a small boat on the monster's lake.
I stayed up late to finish reading this. I was held hostage in the story and kept thinking, "what next?" There is such majesty of language, such smooth stringing of words even more beautiful and melodious when spoken, and I found that Lauren Groff tied up every story line, and not one thing was left out. I was able to close the book satisfied, and know that I didn't have one question left, save for my imagination walking by the lake with one of the characters, waiting for the fog to settle to see if maybe it was a trick of my eyes, or if I just saw one of the many monsters of the town. Great, fabulous, read -- I'm excited to read anything Lauren Groff has coming next!
Coffee and a Book Chick