Templeton, New York, a tiny hamlet so picture-perfect it looks like the inside of a snow globe, has been home to descendents of Marmaduke Temple since the 1700s. Both tourists and residents marvel at the town’s immutability, touting it as an unspoiled exemplar of simpler times.
Enter Wilhelmina “Willie” Upton, daughter of Vi, a middle-aged former hippie turned born-again Christian. Willie is in the throes of an emotional meltdown — she recently fled California after attempting to murder the wife of her doctoral dissertation adviser-slash-paramour and has no idea what to do with herself. Her mother, meanwhile, has no patience for this unfolding soap opera and throws an additional whammy at Willie by confessing that the 28-year-old’s father is not exactly the mystery man she’d previously said he was. Instead, Vi admits that Daddy-dearest not only resides in Templeton but is one of the town’s premier businessmen. Vi further asserts that she never told him she was pregnant. What’s more, she refuses to disclose his name.
Vi’s pronouncement compounds Willie’s funk while simultaneously sending her on a quest to determine the details of her origin. The resultant investigation takes her back to Marmaduke’s time and reveals an astonishing array of scandals involving an astonishing array of people. Adultery, arson, blackmail, election stealing, prostitution and murder — you name it, it’s all happened behind Templeton’s closed doors. In short order, the quaintly picturesque town — which is patterned after Cooperstown, NY, the author’s birthplace —begins to look as tawdry as Peyton Place.
Although the dozens of characters and multiple threads would be overwhelming in less competent hands, Groff ably juggles people and place and keeps the story from bogging down. Indeed, The Monsters of Templeton — and, yes, there are underwater sea creatures, several ghosts and more than a few two-legged ogres — is compelling and complex, entertaining and original. It’s also charming and poetic, upbeat and loving. Message is clearly secondary to the telling of the tale, nonetheless, truths about honesty, friendship and parental bonds are revealed, making it a memorable and auspicious first novel.