The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)

“Fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies. This story saw history as malleable and tried for a different kind of truth about my little village on the lake, one filled with all the mystery and magic that I was surrounded by in my childhood.” Lauren Groff in her Author’s Note at the start of The Monsters of Templeton.

Lauren Groff writes a bizarre but beautiful novel, unlike anything I have read before. She tells the story of a place, the people who have inhabited it, from the time it was empty wilderness and the summer home to Native Americans, through its days of early settlement, its evolution through wars and recessions, all the way up through the present.

The town, Templeton and its Lake Glimmerglass, are fictional, but they are shaped very much after the author’s beloved hometown of Cooperstown, New York and by the writings of its famous former resident, James Fenimore Cooper. Blurring the line between truth and fiction, Monsters seems autobiographical at times and at others entirely imagined. Groff grounds the book in fact, but mismatches and distorts events ever so slightly so that nothing is as it seems but still seems utterly real. In her introductory Author’s Note, she writes, “I wanted to write a love story for Cooperstown. The more I knew, the more the facts drifted from their moorings. They began shaping themselves into stories in my head. I slowly began to notice that I wasn’t writing about Cooperstown anymore, but a slantwise version of the original.”

The stories Groff tells paint a vivid picture of what the lake and the town were like in each of its past phases, each one layered on top of another, the past invisible but still somehow still effecting the lives of Templeton’s modern residents. Many of the book’s characters are the descendants of the town’s “founder” and, in their own words, tell their stories of the town, the lake, and its shadowy secrets. Stretching forward and backward in time, Groff shows the readers the changes to Templeton over time: animals and plants once plentiful, now extinct; people once certain they were building a metropolis, people who “would have said that Templeton would certainly by a bustling, important city in 150 years, not the insular village it is now.”

The present day story follows the life of Willie Upton, a young PhD student who has fled her studies in California after a disastrous affair with her dissertation advisor and returned home to Templeton, New York and her family’s ancestral home. “The day I returned home to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass .” And so the stories of Willie Upton and the monster — “Glimmey” –unfold together.

As she rides out the scandal, Willie begins to research her family tree and discovers writings and artifacts that reveal the secrets and scandals of her many relatives; as well as provide her with glimpses of the lake monster as it was known to her ancestors. The monsters referred to in the title relates not only to the lake’s mysterious inhabitant, but also the men and women of the town — both past and present — whose actions were often cruel and, well, monstrous.

Filled with magic, mystery, ghosts, scandals, murders, and romance, this book tells historical and modern day stories that are equally compelling. With its experimental writing style and mythical qualities, it was easy to spend hours reading at a time. I highly recommend it.

Cooperstown aerial No acc# NBL

Cooperstown, New York. Aerial view, with Lake Otsego.

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