First, a few details to address before we get to award-winning Lauren Groff‘s down-the-rabbit-hole, delightfully convoluted debut novel …
If you choose to go audible, the publishing world offers two versions: I went with Ann Marie Lee (via the local library), although the (later) more readily available recording is by Nicole Roberts. As long as Lee stays away from accents, her narration is just grand. Her version, however, doesn’t include Groff’s opening “Author’s Note,” so you’ll need to find those two pages in print (or stick Roberts in your ears) as they are dense with contextual information.
Templeton is real. Sort of. Templeton is based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York, that baseball Mecca named after James Fenimore Cooper‘s father William, the town’s 18th-century founder. Quakers, house by the lake, Yale, great novelists with initials that begin with J.F. – do remember some of those real-life details.
Cooper rechristened the town ‘Templeton’ in The Pioneers, his novel about Cooperstown, in which “his facts also went a little awry,” Groff explains. She herself initially intended to “write a love story for Cooperstown,” but she realized hers was “a slantwise version of the original.” Groff adapted Cooper’s ‘pioneer’-ing approach, as well as some of Cooper’s characters, including Marmaduke Temple, Natty Bumppo, and Chingachgook. “In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies. I ended up with a different sort of story about my town than the one I had begun.”
So now … welcome to Monsters, of which Templeton seems to have many. “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace,” confesses protagonist Willie Upton – a few months short of finishing her Stanford PhD in archeology, and pregnant by her married advisor – “the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” That titular beast is the town’s least benign, and symbol it may be, it’s alas a rather unnecessary diversion from the rest of the narrative.
Having nearly killed her lover’s wife in a spectacular plane chase on the frozen Alaskan tundra, Willie returns to Templeton and her mother Vi in a think-later state of shock. With the discovery of the town’s monster, home is not the calm escape Willie expected. Her former flower-child mother has unexpectedly embraced religion, claiming the town’s pastor as her boyfriend. Hoping to purge her past wrongdoings, Vi confesses that Willie’s wild birthstory involving three potential donors is untrue, and that Willie’s father is actually a shall-not-be-named Templetonian, which means Willie’s heretofore unknown paternal link shares the same blue blood as mother and daughter. Willie’s challenge to dig up her lineage is just the insane sort of project to restore her sanity …
Interwoven with Willie’s personal quest is an acerbic, possibly dying best friend on the other side of the country, the “Running Buds,” a homecoming King too attracted to his returning Queenie, a transformed “Peter-Lieder-Pudding-and-Pie,” not to mention a sprawling, entangled family tree that includes ghosts, slaves, Native Americans, murderers, cheaters, and, of course, writers. From that epic monster mash came forth Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton … and she’s not leaving again until she’s unearthed all her buried roots.