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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"The Monsters of Templeton" by Lauren Groff

Official Lauren Groff Website
Official Monsters of Templeton Website
Order “The Monsters of TempletonHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

When I came across Lauren Groff’s debut, the first thing that jumped out at me was the title, “The Monsters of Templeton”. The second was a very flattering blurb by Stephen King, “There are monsters, murders, bastards, and ne’er-do-wells almost without number. I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end, and there is no higher success than that.” I admit that because of the King endorsement, I thought the book was going to be some sort of psychological horror novel, but I was quickly disabused of this notion by the author herself who warned me that “The Monsters of Templeton” was more of a ‘literary’ read opposed to any of the fantasy, sci-fi or other speculative fiction that I usually cover. Regardless, I graciously accepted a copy and have been looking forward to seeing what kind of novel would garner such high praise from the Master of Horror himself…

First off, let me be clear here. Despite the title, the Stephen King blurb, a fifty-foot prehistoric monster, ghosts, the seemingly immortal Aristabulus Mudge and a person who can cause instantaneous combustion with her emotions, “The Monsters of Templeton” is definitely not a horror or fantasy novel—at least not in the traditional sense—although there are events in the book that I would describe as horrifying or fantastic ;) Instead, according to the publisher, “The Monsters of Templeton” is part “contemporary story of a girl’s search for her father, part historical novel, and part ghost story”, which is a pretty accurate description except that I would also add that the book is an homage to Lauren’s birthplace—Cooperstown, NY—and author James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans), particularly his novel “The Pioneers”, going so far as using the names Templeton, Marmaduke, Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook and Remarkable for her own.

Of the contemporary plotline, “The Monsters of Templeton” opens with archaeologist Wilhelmina “Willie” Upton—some of the names in the book are just outrageous, but I loved them!—returning back home from a dig in Alaska where an affair turned terribly wrong. Now Willie is pregnant, her career all but ruined, and to compound matters, her mother Vivienne has turned into a ‘Jesus freak’, her best friend Clarissa is suffering from a relapse with her Lupus treatments, and being back home is reminding Willie why she left in the first place. So, to help take Willie’s mind off of the situation, Vi does what any loving mother would do…she confesses to knowing who Willie’s real father is—the story was that Willie was the product of some “orgiastic hippie love-fest”—and that he actually lives in Templeton. Even more shocking, the father in question is apparently descended from the same Marmaduke Temple that their Upton family is as well as the Averells! Unfortunately, Vi refuses to reveal who the father is, and instead makes a project out of it for Willie which is where the historical part comes in as well as a little detective work. From here, the reader gets to follow Willie as she journeys backward through the family tree in search of her father, which, along the way, unveils some fascinating secrets about Willie’s lineage, and maybe even teaches the twenty-eight-year-old a thing or two about perseverance, love, family and friendship… As far as the book’s supernatural elements, Glimmey (the Lake Glimmerglass monster), the Averell Cottage ghost, et cetera, are relegated to the background and are more allegorical in nature, but they also remain key components of Lauren’s novel as you’ll see if you read Ms. Groff’s debut :)

I know what some readers are thinking. “The Monsters of Templeton” doesn’t sound very exciting and do I hear murmurs of ‘women’s fiction’ out there? In truth, there is some romance involved, and a lot of the main characters are female, but that doesn’t mean only women will be able to enjoy the book. After all, the themes that Lauren explores are universal, so no matter what gender you are, “The Monsters of Templeton” is a story you can relate to. Of course, relating to the book would be a lot more difficult if not for the author. In short, Lauren Groff is a tremendously gifted writer whose words leap off the pages with a passion and vividness that is just impossible to resist. I mean the prose is simply beautiful; the characters are alive with quirky personalities, distinctive voices and rich back stories; and the whole city of Templeton with its amazing history just feels so real, so authentic. Part of that has to do with all of the historical paraphernalia that is inserted into the book—character portraits & photographs, Willie’s continuously revised family tree, a journal excerpt which is printed so it seems like the reader is actually holding it in their hands, a series of letters between two friends, newspaper articles, et cetera—but mostly, it’s Lauren herself and just the minutiae and love she puts into the book. On top of that, I was also quite impressed with the way Ms. Groff handled the story. Between the many different timelines, subplots, and character arcs—most of which were told in the first-person—not to mention the Glimmey storyline and the short, yet charming interludes provided by the Running Buds, it wouldn’t be hard for an author to lose control of such an ambitious project. Fortunately, Lauren keeps everything in line, and while it may take a while before all of the individual pieces start to fit together, when it does, it’s spectacular :)

In the end, I know that as a reviewer I mostly cover genre fiction, which probably also applies to the majority of readers who visit Fantasy Book Critic, but every once in a while a book comes along that is so good, so spellbinding, that it cannot be constrained by mere labels. “The Monsters of Templeton” is that kind of book, and is easily the best novel I’ve read so far in 2008...


reanimated said...

I saw this one and thought it looked interesting. I think I will wait until it comes out in trade or pb, though.

Another good review, Robert. Thanks dude!

Robert said...

Glad you liked the review :) It will be interesting to see what other people think of the book if they read it since it's not really your traditional speculative fiction novel...

Anonymous said...

Great review; I got the book and I like it so far. I will post my comments in the sffworld forum when finished. Another mainstream/fantastic debut that I got this weekend and I am enjoying a lot is Immortal by T. Slatton


Chris, The Book Swede said...

I'm definitely going to get hold of this ... except I already have Toby Barlow's which you recommended and several others and ... damn!

How do you read, and write such cracking reviews of such a wide spectrum of books -- most of which I haven't even heard of before, in such speedy succession?!

Dammmmmn you! :D

I read very fast, but my reviewing pace is much, much slower. :)

The Book Swede

Robert said...

Liviu, I'll keep an eye out for your comments on SFFWorld :) I have "Immortal" sitting in my pile and can't wait to read that one. It sounds very interesting...

Chris, compared to Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen, I'm nothing ;) My goal is to read/review a book every 2-3 days, but I believe he can finish a book in a few hours, which is just incredible. Even more so, he told me that true speed readers can complete a book in minutes! Now if that's not a superpower, I don't know what is :D

QuietlyGoingMad said...

Wonderful review. I can't even express how much I loved this book and the vast array of quirky characters in it. I've been recommending it to everyone I know!

Robert said...

Thanks for the comments! "The Monsters of Templeton" is still one of the best books I've read in 2008 :)

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