Book/Author and Year Published: Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
Age/Genre: Spooky Drama
Preferred Reading Environment: Your childhood home, or somewhere that reminds you of it.
Reading Accoutrements: The snack your parents didn’t allow you to eat growing up.
Content Notes: Slavery, Rape, Racism, Chronic Illness, Unplanned Pregnancies
As I was cataloguing the books in my home and setting aside horror-related books for October, Monsters of Templeton caught my eye. This is a book my husband picked up at a library book sale a while back and hasn’t gotten around to reading. It looked spooky and interesting, so I put it in my October stack.
Monsters of Templeton follows Wilhelmina (Willie) Upton on her return to her hometown of Templeton, New York. After using a small plane to almost run down the wife of the professor she’s been having an affair with, Willie leaves her postgraduate program hunting for human remains in Alaska. She comes home to recoup and figure out what her next steps will be.
Vivienne (Vi) Upton, Willie’s mother, is not thrilled with the reasons for her daughter’s return. She sees Willie’s situation as a repetition of her own youthful mistakes, particularly since one of the things Willie needs to figure out is how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. Vi tells Willie she’s not allowed to wallow – she needs to find a project and get back up on her feet.
Willie is shocked to discover that her mom, who has been a hippie as long as Willie has known her, is now a born-again-Christian, dating a minister. With a desire to right past wrongs, Vi tells Willie that she lied about the circumstances of Willie’s conception, and that Willie’s father lives in Templeton and is someone she knows. She also mentions that he, like them, shares some heritage with the town’s founder, 5 generations back. Willie realizes that between town historical documents and family letters, she should be able to figure out who her father is, and takes this genealogical hunt on as her project.
Meanwhile, the day Willie returns, a giant creature’s corpse floated to the surface of Templeton’s Lake Glimmerglass. This “monster,” as it is dubbed, is unlike any known life form, and scientists and news crews flock to Templeton to investigate and make a spectacle of the discovery. There have always been myths of a monster in the lake, and the townspeople feel a bit of a loss knowing it’s no longer there.
So that’s the setup. The chapters alternate inconsistently between Willie’s plotline and moments of various ancestors and historical townspeople’s lives. There are a few fun elements, like Willie’s revisions of her family tree after she makes discoveries about the indiscretions of past generations.
The cover of the book features a glowing blurb from Stephen King, which does not surprise me at all. This is set in a small Northeastern town with tons of odd characters and lots of spooky details. For example, there is a ghost living in Willie and Vi’s house. It’s been there since before either of them, and is usually harmless, just floating around and pulsing.
Pretty early on, I knew there would be a lot of things about this book I wouldn’t enjoy. A lot of them boil down to the characters being assholes, which is portrayed as a character trait rather than a character flaw. Here are a few moments that didn’t sit well with me (No spoilers here, all of these are either early in the book or irrelevant to the main plotline):
- In a flashback, Vi finds out that her mother’s family is related to the town founder through a liason he had with a household slave. Her reaction to this is to laugh and say “Cool, I’m part negro.” She later says she likes her ancestor more now that she knows his dirty secret. I hated pretty much everything about this response. It lacks empathy, humanity, and weight. It is consistent with Vi’s character in the rest of the book, but doesn’t serve a purpose. Everyone else in the book is basically either uncomfortable with the fact that their Quaker founder had slaves (understandable) or with the fact he had extramarital relations, but they focus on how it affects his reputation and their view of town history, rather than how a woman’s life was forever altered.
- Willie describes herself as super-feminist, but her feminism is of a very narrow, 90s-era kind that centers white women and ignores other power imbalances. She is also very judgemental of people’s appearances, her judgements focusing largely on class alignment and society’s gender expectations.
- Willie recounts her memory of the only time she witnessed the house ghost becoming aggressive. She was making out with a boy in her room, planning on losing her virginity, and the ghost made itself an oppressive presence, almost suffocating them. The boy left in terror. Willie makes a quip that he later came out as “flaming.” It felt like it was supposed to be a joke, but to me it felt like she was saying that the trauma made him gay and that was funny, which is problematic on several levels.
- Willie’s best friend, Clarissa, is chronically ill with Lupus. Willie makes Clarissa’s condition all about Willie, dwelling on how hard it is to know how to act. While I understand that chronic conditions absolutely affect the afflicted’s loved ones, I really hated the self-centeredness and again, lack of empathy.
- Willie at one point refers to her mentally ill great grandmother as a “nutjob.”
Since the characters are not presented as role models, or even people who have their lives together, none of these moments was enough to get me to stop reading. I do believe you can enjoy a book and hate the characters, and this book definitely tested that theory. I think it suffers from a lot of the same flaws as Gilmore Girls, which was progressive in a lot of ways – particularly for its time – but as time passes, it’s failures become more and more visible. The characters lack empathy, mean-spiritedness is passed off as snarky humor, and a lot of offhand comments have really insidious undertones that the content doesn’t explore.
Another thing I didn’t love was how the book romanticizes affairs. Like, I get it, people cheat, and they can still be good people in other ways. But that doesn’t make the cheating okay. And this book just shrugs off cheating like it’s an unavoidable part of life. In fact, I feel like it addresses rape in that way too. It’s all “people do fucked up shit and we move on.” At the end, Willie’s a little less selfish when it comes to Clarissa, but there’s no indication she’s going to start living her life differently. She feels no remorse for sleeping with a married man (according to Willie, his wife’s a bitch, so obviously she deserves it), and the book never shows her processing some of the darker parts of her ancestry.
I also felt that the format of the book was a little lacking. The segments from the past are almost random at certain points. Some of the segments are historical documents from Willie’s research, but others are just moments inside characters’ heads. This makes it difficult at the end to remember what Willie knows and what she doesn’t. It does give the reader more information than Willie has, which has some benefits, but I think that if all of the historical segments were in document form, (whether Willie read all the documents or not), there’d be more of a cohesive frame. People with an interest in genealogy and history would probably like Monsters of Templeton if they also enjoy creepy stories (though Willie’s approach to research is at times frustrating, because she acts like it’s strategic, but it has a lot of flaws).
I enjoyed parts of this book and I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to reading more of Lauren Groff’s work in the future. This was her debut novel, and I really liked some of the things she did with tone and setting. I also like how there were multiple actual monsters in the book, but I still came away feeling that the title was referring, at least partially, to some of the people as well. That being said, I don’t think I’ll ever need to return to this book, specifically. The characters and ideas I enjoyed weren’t explored enough to make up for all the parts I hated.
What’s the last book that made you angry but you kept reading? What’s the last book that made you so angry you put it down forever? Share in the comments!