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.
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.
The whole find-your-real-dad scavenger hunt is a little contrived. I, for one, would never embark on weeks of research if I knew I could get the answer I wanted by pestering my mother. (Vivienne is hoping the challenge will help pull Willie out of her funk.)
But Groff has concocted such a rich trove of source documents – portraits, old letters, journal entries, and reminiscences by characters lifted from Fenimore Cooper's writings – that readers will be too busy gleefully burrowing into the fictitious past she has created to mind.
Early on, Willie calls her mom a "human onion," and the novel also works in layers, peeling away to find the "acrid, tear-inducing core." Despite Glimmey and the occasional character who claims to see ghosts, the real monsters of Templeton are most definitely human. Which is why a spiritus-ex-machina near the end of the novel is such a head-shaker – it's a creaky contrivance Groff didn't need.
What makes "The Monsters of Templeton" particularly satisfying is that Groff has taken the macho backdrop of Fenimore Cooper's work and turned it into the stomping ground for some complicated, vibrant women. Cooper's females, as probably even his most ardent defender would admit, weren't his strong suit. Critic James Russell Lowell actually waxed poetic about his inability to write them: "...the women he draws from one model don't vary,/ All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie."
Prickly, messed-up Willie and her mom couldn't sweeten an Eggo between them. When Willie was a child, they were simultaneous sources of civic pride and shame – thanks to Vivienne's status as a hippie and teenage mom and her late historian father's publication of an unsavory secret about the "great" Marmaduke.
Both women were isolated by the "grand old house and ... simultaneous poverty. As I grew, I would have a pool my country-clubbing grandparents had put in, two in-town acres, a lake to play in all summer long," Willie remembers. "And yet I would have to pick my clothes out of a bin in the basement of the Presbyterian Church and during hard times run into the Great American grocery store to buy our cheese with food stamps."
As Willie uncovers "the many messy centuries of my messy, messy family" (and she's not kidding – Vivienne emerges as the sanest, most selfless Temple in 200 years), the modern world gets kinder and gentler (rather improbably so, in a few cases) as the nastiness of the past is exposed.
The historical puzzle satisfies to the end, but in the present day, Groff tries a little too hard to smooth out Willie's future. (As plenty of adopted children can tell you, finding a biological parent doesn't automatically make the rest of life fall into place.)
Still, as a work of imagination, "The Monsters of Templeton" excels. It will be a while before I look at a lake and not wish there were a benevolent, ungainly Glimmey swimming under the surface.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.