The Monsters of Templeton

By Lauren Groff

Voice. $25. 364 pp.


Reviewed by Karen Heller


Lauren Groff is a woman in love. As Balzac had Paris, and William Kennedy his Albany, Groff is besotted with her hometown of Cooperstown, N.Y. Her subject is not the summer playground of baseball enthusiasts but a sylvan setting rich in history that includes its most famed citizen, James Fenimore Cooper, scion of the town's founder.

"I wanted to write a love story for Cooperstown," Groff announces on the first page of her smart, accomplished first novel,

The Monsters of Templeton

. But her story veers off the known path of bucolic Lake Street, and twists and turns while inventing new myths and centuries of monsters, kind and malevolent.

"In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies," Groff writes, renaming her birthplace Templeton. It serves as the home of many generations of the Temple family, including novelist Jacob Franklin Temple, very much Fenimore Cooper's twin. Otsego Lake becomes Lake Glimmerglass, as it is in his novels.

Monsters

' town founder Marmaduke Temple is a character in Cooper's

The Pioneers

, as is Remarkable Prettybones (Pettibones in Cooper's world) and Monsieur Le Quois. Groff has has braided history and Cooper's literature and fashioned her own.

Monsters

' narrator is Templeton sweetheart Willie "Sunshine" Upton, descendant of two great town families and lone issue of former hippie chick Vi Upton and an unknown father. An archaeology grad student at Stanford, Willie has returned home after being knocked up by her advisor in Alaska and nearly knocking down his wife, the dean of students, intentionally with a bush plane.

At that very moment, a dead monster - the first of many - appears in Lake Glimmerglass. This one is of the Loch Ness variety, 55 feet in length and attracting television cameras and more summer tourists than usual.

Vi, now a nurse and religious ("She didn't go to church the next morning, which was Sunday, but I saw her praying everywhere"), is livid. She's put all her bets on her smart daughter, to leave town and make something of herself. Instead, Vi shakes Willie to the core by announcing that her father is not some drive-by lover from a San Francisco commune but a pillar of Templeton, making her the scion of three families. More, however, Vi will not divulge.

This is a sheer literary device, one to send the research-oriented narrator to the historical society, and the reader through a wondrous, circuitous voyage through Groff's concocted history, filled with ghosts and other monsters. Among Groff's finest creations is Cinnamon Averell Stokes Starkweather Sturgis Graves Peck, four times a widow, and Charlotte Franklin Temple, one of the novelist's eight daughters. Groff takes enormous delight with letters exchanged between these 19th-century ladies whose reputations prove as false as their great friendship.

The return home allows Willie to uncover her unknown past and relive her youth with many high-school compatriots and an almost-beau still in town. On the brink of being a mother, Willie gets to play the child, while rekindling her love of the town.

"That evening, my mother and I took a long walk around Templeton. The twilight had dimmed into dusk and the windows in all the mansions began to twinkle. The heat of the day had cooled into a gentle warmth, and the families, sitting on their porches or on the benches of Main Street, all seemed to be murmuring, eating ice cream, watching the sleepy flickers of the late lightning bugs in the hills. Those who were only here for the museums had gone home. The town was safe again for the natives, and we had emerged shyly, like big-eyed ungulates of the field."

Born in 1978, Groff is an assured writer, with a lovely and distinct voice. The only times she falters is in some historical guises. An editorial from 1799 strikes too contemporary a tone, as do Elizabeth Franklin Temple's remembrances from that era.

Monsters

is a visually exquisite novel, replete with photos and portraits, numerous updated family trees, enchanting designs, and the best cover in some time. In an era of so many talented graphic designers, it is a shame there are not more handsome novels like Groff's, one as wonderful to look at as it is to read.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.