Friday, December 11, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 4: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

This is a daring book -- one that doesn't let you lull yourself into complacency assuming that you know what is going to happen next. When you think you're sure of what's coming, you can be even more sure that while you might be close, you'll never be exactly right.

The story is hung around Willie Cooper, a girl who comes back to her hometown (here called Templeton, but really Cooperstown), after an affair with her married professor that didn't go particularly well. Just in case she wasn't feeling badly enough, the same day she returns the city discovers a kind of Loch Ness monster washed up on the shore of the local lake, and her mother decides to inform her that her anonymous father actually lives in the town.

About half of the book is concentrated on Willie's story -- how she tries to get her life back together, and her research into who her father may actually be. The other half is told from the point of view of other people in the town - some current day, others from the distant path. Some tell their stories through letters, others through diaries, others through what seems like oral testimony. The changing narrators keeps the book interesting and energetic.

The way Groff uses different voices is clever, and although at first glance this might seem almost like a light chick lit novel, it definitely isn't. It's sometimes surprisingly dark, and certainly doesn't follow chick lit genre traditions. The twists are genuinely surprising, and the characters are not one-note.

However, there are a few passages in which Groff seems to get too caught up in aesthetic concerns. She lingers over negative descriptions of older women's aging bodies and men's balding pates. Old age is equated with ugliness.

The book also seems slightly incomplete -- I feel like if she had added on another hundred pages or so I would have liked it much better. The resolution seems a bit too cut and dry, and some of the explanations almost terse. This is the author's first full-length novel and it shows a bit. This is more than a collection of related short stories, but it doesn't feel like a whole either.

Another aspect which was slightly irritating was the inclusion of supernatural occurrences. A ghost inhabits Willie's house, and some minor characters have some rather strange powers. I'm not necessarily against ghosts and such -- for example, in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits they work perfectly --but here they seemed more like a loophole for Groff to explain the mystery without having to work too hard to come up with a more plausible explanation.

In the end, I'd give this book a C+. I'll probably take a look at her next book, to see if she's matured as a writer. She's definitely got talent, but it needs honing.