It’s getting to be that time of year. With the changing of the leaves and the ubiquitous presence of pumpkin-flavored drinks comes another important seasonal milestone: Halloween. If you want your reading list to reflect the supernatural vibes of the season, consider reading 2008’s “The Monsters of Templeton” by UW-Madison MFA alum Lauren Groff.
Groff’s debut novel follows Wilhelmina “Willie” Upton as she returns to her hometown of Templeton after a disastrous affair with a professor, resulting in a pregnancy she is at a loss for how to cope with. The day she arrives home is the very same day that the corpse of a monster is found floating in the lake near her house, spurring a sequence of events centering on Willie’s quest to find her father.
According to an interview with Amherst College, Groff initially began the book as an homage to her hometown of Cooperstown, New York, but quickly found that the story took on a life of its own. Willie is descended from the Templetonian equivalent of royalty, and the novel is told mainly from Willie’s perspective. However, it also incorporates chapters from the perspectives of the numerous ancestors she researches as she delves into her family tree.
"A New York Times best-selling author, Groff has written three novels and two short story collections."
A New York Times best-selling author, Groff has written three novels and two short story collections, her most recent being “Florida,” which was released earlier this year. All three of her novels have been met with widespread critical acclaim, “The Monsters of Templeton” being no exception.
Groff’s writing is lighthearted but complex: Her characters are believable entities with their own distinct voices that keep the network of plot threads from tangling. Perhaps the novel’s most impressive product is Willie’s relationship with her mother, Vivienne. Vivienne Upton is overbearing yet sympathetic, and her rapport with her daughter is unapologetically honest. Hard-edged humor masks the complicated affection between them as Willie struggles to come to terms with her mother’s spontaneous transition from hippie to born-again Baptist.
In an attempt to pull Willie from her despair, Vivienne sends her daughter on a quest through the family archives to find her father — a man who, in addition to residing in Templeton, supposedly shares a distant family connection somewhere along the line. At times, Willie’s search can cause the plot to sputter as she spends hours sifting through historical archives in the library.
"Groff crafts a world in which ghosts live alongside investment bankers, and a pregnancy is somehow less believable than the existence of a lake monster."
In spite of the occasional lag in action, the novel is overall engrossing. Groff crafts a world in which ghosts live alongside investment bankers, and a pregnancy is somehow less believable than the existence of a lake monster. More than anything, though, it is a tribute to nostalgia, an acknowledgment of the allure of the past and the hold it has on us all. It is a book that causes us to think of the places we come from and the people we call family. “The Monsters of Templeton” is a masterful combination of the surreal and mundane that will remain in your memory long after the Halloween decorations are packed away.