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THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON

By Lauren Groff

Hyperion, 384 pages, $29.95

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The Monsters of Templeton is irresistible. The cover is captivating: a Victorian silhouette of a stained-glass-and-wrought-iron-style portraiture tree, beautiful and creepily evocative of what lies within. Then we have the blurbs by Stephen King and Lorrie Moore. Yes, that's right, Stephen King, master of commercial horror, and Lorrie Moore, master of literary short fiction.

And then the first line: "The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass." Okay, Stephen King. And then: "It was one of those strange purple dawns that color July there, when the bowl made by the hills fills with a thick fog and even the songbirds sing timorously, unsure of day or night." I see why Lorrie Moore likes it.

And so the novel unfolds, a book that hovers more on the edge of magic realism than on the macabre, a book that features monsters of all sorts: the human, the spiritual, the metaphysical, the mythic, the metaphoric, the private and the public.

Lauren Groff's first novel is the tale of 28-year-old Wilhelmina (Willie) Upton, who has returned to her home town of Templeton with her head hung in shame, pregnant and morose after a romp with her married dissertation adviser while on an archeological dig. Willie has been raised by her eccentric single mother, Vivienne, who had always attributed Willie's paternity to one of several participants at a love fest in her San Francisco hippie days. But Willie's pregnancy is eclipsed by her mother's revelation that she has lied about Willie's sire, who is alive and well and living in Templeton, where Willie has come with futile hopes of hiding from her past.

Vivienne further complicates matters by refusing to identify him. The only hint she gives is that Willie's father is indirectly related to the Upton family. And so Willie begins the daunting task of unearthing her family tree, going back two centuries, in hopes of finding the clues that will lead to her father. The appearance of the monster in Lake Glimmerglass heralds a time of change for all.

Lorrie Moore calls The Monsters of Templeton a hybrid. It is indeed a scrapbook of a creature, with its compelling weave of historical and contemporary story linked with photos, historical journal excerpts, letters and dramatic monologues of long-dead characters who appear in the book as though summoned in a séance. Willie's progress with her genealogical research is marked by a recurring chart of her family tree, revised as she uncovers more pieces of the past, bringing her closer to her father.

Her perspective forms the skeleton of the book, though the book's eyes belong to a Greek chorus-like collective of middle-aged joggers, who appear periodically to sum up and set the stage for the next bit of action. The present is constantly juxtaposed against the past, with the sins of the town founder, Marmaduke Temple, rippling through to the present.

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Groff is from Cooperstown, N.Y., renowned for its charming architecture, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Glimmerglass Opera and one-time resident James Fenimore Cooper, of The Last of the Mohicans fame. While this is Groff's first novel, her short fiction has appeared in Atlantic Monthly and in Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII and Best New American Voices 2008. She now resides in Gainesville, Fla., with her husband and her dog - who is named, of course, Cooper.

Groff uses her hometown as the model for the novel's Templeton. In publicity provided by the publisher, Groff says the book is a love letter to Cooperstown, a novel born out of homesickness. And it's a powerful love at work: Groff's fictional town is depicted with such detail and ambience that it is a character in its own right.

Groff's style possesses something of a hybrid nature as well. There are tones of John Irving in her quirky characters, with their offbeat views and ravenous sexual appetites. The voice of Willie is contemporary and hip, but her narration also has a charming 19th-century flavour, reminiscent of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. If perhaps there is a sag in the book, it is with the contemporary characters, who sometimes pale next to the folk who dwell in Willie's ancestry. Willie's important relationships - her best friend Clarissa, Zeke from high school, her mother - are sometimes portrayed through description rather than action and as a result they don't develop as fully as they could.

This wouldn't be as obvious if Groff weren't such a historical-fiction wizard. The characters from the past burst off the page with alacrity and distinctiveness, and it's nothing short of genius that she can present such diversity in voice and character. The letters between two of Willie's ancestors, Cinnamon and Charlotte, are brilliant not just in their depiction of character, development of relationship and revelation of story, but in their pacing. It is in writing such as this that Groff reveals herself to be a master storyteller.

Told with humour and lightness, The Monsters of Templeton takes the reader on a quirky quest as Willie endeavours to come to terms with her present by understanding the secrets of her shared past. It is an astounding debut, in which Groff's talent is evident from structural complexity to exuberant and unique writing style. It's exciting to imagine what sort of literary creature she'll create next.

Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave, lives and writes near the Bay of Fundy, wherein, it is said, there be sea monsters.

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