The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff is a detective novel, a pastoral, a history book and a memoir all in one. Winnie Sunshine Upton, the adult daughter of a single mother and former hippie, comes home to Templeton in shame. After an affair with her married professor on the Alaskan tundra, she finds herself pregnant and nearly kills his wife — then winds up on the doorstep of her childhood home.
She is sure she will be tossed from the doctoral program (which she couldn't complete from jail, anyway, considering what she did to the professor's wife) and her best friend Clarissa is deathly ill. Winnie had vowed to shake the dust of her provincial town off her boots and move on to a life of, well, anything but Templeton. In light of this, she believes life can't get worse.
Only it does. She returns the day the lake monster, a thing of legends, is real, evident by its body found floating in Lake Glimmerglass. And her mother tells her that the story of her paternity has been a lie: she is not the offspring of a free-love experiment in San Francisco, but the child of a man of the town. Who? Well, that's up to Winnie to find out. Her only clue: he is related to the town founder, as she is.
While the first voice we hear is Winnie's, many other voices weave this tale: the Running Buds, a group of men in the town who run together; the different historical residents of Templeton Winnie studies; and the lake monster.
The characters were very real and very interesting. It takes all types to make a town, and Groff allowed them to speak for themselves. I liked hearing about this small town from its beginning, and it's easier to understand a town when you know the people who created it.
I found the tale very busy at first, and I had a hard time following it. Voices switched in what I thought were nonsensical ways. Why the Buds now? Why Prettybones then? What was I supposed to glean from this part of the tale? Was it a clue? I didn't know enough about the tale to pick up yet on clues, so at first I felt out of the loop, stupid.
Maybe that's why I had a hard time sympathizing with Winnie in the beginning: I didn't understand her. Only when I saw her through the eyes of others did I start to appreciate her character and personality. Frankly, the impetus for this change was Clarissa, her stalwart and closest friend, and the Running Buds. If they liked Winnie, so did I. Then again, Winnie wasn't so keen on herself at first, and it's hard to like someone who doesn't like herself.
As the story developed, so did my affection for the tale. It was more engrossing as more of the elements were introduced, as the relationships were developed, as the town became more of a character. It had its own rhythm, and it started to make sense. Groff includes photos at the beginning of the chapters and a map of Templeton, which made it very real for me. I especially liked the illustration of Glimmey. In fact, I'd say Glimmey is my favorite character, followed closely by Clarissa. After a while, I felt like a townie myself.
By the time I was halfway through the book, I was compelled to finish it quickly (not so much the "don't go to sleep until it's finished" quickly, but more "go to the gym to read rather than run" and "just a few more pages before turning off the light").
I found a few elements of the story, however, a little far-fetched. If my mother told me my gestation took 10.5 months, I would know something was up, especially if my relationship had grown as Winnie and Vi's had. I also found the transformation of one of the men of town a little hard to believe because it was illogical in the time span in which it was supposed to occur.
Then again, I wasn't sure exactly how many days or weeks passed during the telling of the tale. Groff was very specific in her passage of time, but Winnie's condition distracted me from that specific chronology. Finally, what happened to Winnie at the end was nearly telegraphed; there was no way Groff would left anything else happen to her heroine. Knowing that made Winnie's situation almost a distraction, and I took little pleasure in that portion of the storyline.
Frankly, I loved the ending. I savored the last few chapters because it all made sense. I also liked the characters so much that I enjoyed spending time with them. It took me a while to get there, but when I did, I was very happy to be there.
In all, I would recommend it. It's a good read and an interesting story. It shows a definite love for a small town and the dichotomy of loving it enough to protect and support it and, at the exact same time, wanting it to be in the rear view mirror.