A sunburst split the seams of the clouds

The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

A good friend mentioned this book to me because it features a friendship between two girls, one of whom has lupus, and that was enough to interest me. However, that is just one plot thread in a novel that has so much going on you could easily accuse it of that typical feature of the debut novel – that the author threw everything into it – except that that sounds like a bad thing and I really really enjoyed this.

I tried describing the story to Tim and I think overwhelmed him with all the stuff, and yet it doesn’t read like a plot-heavy novel because the writing is lyrical and the elements are given room to breathe, not rushed through. I’m not quite sure how Groff achieved this in just 360 pages but I suspect it is because she has wound everything up together, so that it is all linked.

“We have run through the dark orange days of July, run through the summer mornings soft as mouse fur, through the drizzle, through the baking heat…This is called solace, our morning run.”

The central character is Wilhelmina, or Willie, Upton, a 28-year-old archaeologist who turns up on her mother Vi’s doorstep heartbroken and lost after a disastrous affair with a married man. She has come home to Templeton, the small New York town where she not only grew up, but was the direct descendent of the town’s founder, the semi-legendary Marmaduke Temple. Vi decides that this is the moment to reveal to Willie that she is not, as she had been told, the result of free love in a San Francisco hippy commune, but instead that her father is someone in Templeton, someone Willie has known all her life. But Vi doesn’t tell Willie who, instead she gives her a clue about his ancestry, sending Willie digging through the town archives and old family letters. Alternate chapters are narrated by characters from the town’s past, giving both a flavour of the history of the town and clues to Willie’s quest.

Back in the life Willie has run away from in California, her best friend Clarissa is seriously ill, having been diagnosed with lupus on the brink of multiple organ failure and now months into a treatment regime that is kept quite vague, frustratingly for me as I had an obvious interest in that part. This was inevitably the thread that was going to be hardest for Groff to sell to me and to be honest I think it was done pretty well, with only a couple of minor misfires. Clarissa teeters between exhaustion and boredom/frustration at being home and not able to work, which rang pretty true for me. Her boyfriend Sully cares for her but is angry at Willie for not being there, for having disappeared first on a months-long archaeological dig and now back to her mother.

“There was a painful rubbery silence then, when the noise of the crowd down at the park burbled up to the house and a few chirps from the frog-pool began to rise and the grandfather clock ticked and ticked in the dining room.”

And then there’s the monster. Yes, an actual monster. On the day Willie arrives back in Templeton, a huge dead creature is found floating in the lake that the town is built on the edge of. The creature is dragged to the shore and then away to a laboratory where a series of biologists fail to identify it. But the residents of the town know that it was their monster, that it had been there in the lake longer than the town, and without it everything feels wrong, empty somehow.

This last thread was the one I found difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel. There’s a touch of the mystical or fantasy in the story of the monster. In the historical sections of narrative we learn that troubled souls have always been drawn to the monster (indeed, a number have committed suicide by walking into the lake) and Willie herself may be one of these characters linked to the monster. It’s a fairly clear metaphor for the life of the town and for Willie’s emotional state and sometimes I liked the touch of surreal that it added to the novel, but at others I found it a little out of place.

There is so very much going on in this novel that I haven’t yet touched on. There’s the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Vi and Willie. Hippie feminist Vi appears to have found God and a drippy priest for a boyfriend, much to Willie’s chagrin. And Willie wants to curl up and be a child again just as Vi has found herself ready to move on from being a mother above all else. There’s the similarly complicated friendship between Willie and Clarissa, college buddies who can get on each other’s nerves as well as love unconditionally, who can hold back and keep secrets from each other but also at times be brutally, painfully honest.

There are many more subjects covered, such as the concept of home or belonging to a place, and the importance to some people of having a family history to draw on (though Clarissa, an orphan, seems to feel more drawn to Templeton as a home than Willie is). And of course the mysteries and secrets behind every door, behind every face. Whether it’s a broken heart or something much darker, everyone is hiding something.

“Outside, Templeton was still a pigeon gray, but over the far hills a sunburst split the seams of the clouds and blazed one stamp of trees a strange green-gold. I had dressed in a short yellow sundress from high school because I felt so sad and only that dress seemed to hold an element of light in it.”

Between the chapters there are old photographs labelled with the names of characters going back to Marmaduke Temple and even the last native people who lived on the land before the town was founded. It was perhaps not surprising to find, on reading the author’s note, that the fiction was loosely based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, right down to the town’s famous author – James Fennimore Cooper – who wrote semi-fictional accounts of his town and the characters in it. In fact, readers more familiar with Cooper’s writing than me will probably know that he called his fictional town Templeton and many of the historical character names used by Groff are also his. Groff has written a love letter to her hometown and an homage to its great writer.

Despite its everything but the kitchen sink storyline, this novel is beautiful, with interesting, sympathetic but fallible characters and a very skilled use of multiple voices to bring a whole town to life. Perhaps it would be more generous to call it multi-layered, which it certainly is, as well as intelligent and probing. I will definitely look out for the author’s other books.

Published 2008 by Hyperion.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.