In The Monsters of Templeton,' Cooperstown run amok
A lively debut novel borrows from James Fenimore Cooper and the Loch Ness monster to create myths of its own.
Grad student Willie Upton is having a rotten summer. She's torched her career as an archaeologist, thanks to an affair with a married professor and an episode involving temporary insanity and a bush plane. Also, the 28-year-old has a horrible suspicion that she's pregnant.Skip to next paragraph
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When she drags herself home to Templeton, N.Y., to hide from the wreckage for a while, her mother's got another surprise: She's lied to Wilhemina about her biological father. The man in question still lives in Templeton and, like the Uptons, is a descendant of Marmaduke Temple, father to both the town and its most famous resident, novelist James Franklin Temple.
Since mom (Vivienne) isn't naming names, Willie uses the research skills she's honed writing her dissertation to track the errant ancestor and discover her real dad.
The Monsters of Templeton, the fabulously inventive debut novel by Lauren Groff, follows the trend of recent books such as "March," "Finn," and "Ahab's Wife" of extracting characters from classic novels, adding two cups of history, a quart of imagination, and stirring vigorously. But instead of offering one minor character a star turn, Groff borrows a half-dozen folks from the books of James Fenimore Cooper, using them as witnesses to the historic crime at the heart of her novel.
Generally, classics used as inspirational springboards for modern novelists tend to be beloved and instantly accessible to the collective cultural consciousness ("Little Women," "Huckleberry Finn," "Moby-Dick"). But although world-famous during his life, Fenimore Cooper has fallen on hard times. If it weren't for the 1992 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, most Americans probably wouldn't know a thing about "The Last of the Mohicans."
They're even less likely to have read "The Pioneers," in which, Groff explains in a foreword, Fenimore Cooper wrote about his father and the town he founded, christening the one Marmaduke Temple, and the other Templeton. Since Groff, a native of Cooperstown, found herself combining the city's history and literary traditions with Washington Irving-style ghost stories and tall tales of the region, "I relaxed and followed his lead."
Her Templeton, "an odd mix of Podunk and cosmopolitan," has a baseball museum, an opera, and, residing in Lake Glimmerglass, a North American cousin of the Loch Ness monster. The day the novel opens, "Glimmey" has just gone belly-up, proving its existence by ending it.