BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Lauren Groff
Voice (Hyperion) 2008
Best ebook deal: Library
The Monsters of Templeton opens with an enormous monster literally floating dead in a lake near the town of Templeton. Wilhemina Upton has just come crawling back home after complications with her graduate professor led to a tense situation. Her mother hints toward the identity of her long-unknown father—even mentioning that he lives in their very town—but refuses to just out and tell Wilhemina who he is.
Which is nice, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a novel. Wilhemina (a smarter-than-thou narcissist who studies archeology but likes to drop Whitman quotes uncited into conversation) immediately makes off for the library to study her entire familial history, leading to a series of interspliced letters, journals, and personal accounts. These create for her one kind of understanding of who she is, even as she struggles to find herself in life. Presumably, the monster comes back at some point.
OK, full disclosure: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. Possibly this was because I’m not the ideal reader for it: I don’t much care for the epistolary novel, let alone the historical epistolary, wherein the heroine pores through library tomes, with salient letters recreated for the reader, in order to find the answer to some centuries-old mystery.
Possibly I couldn’t finish it because I care more about why Wilhemina’s mother won’t tell her who her father is than I do about who her father is, while Groff clearly feels the opposite.
Or, possibly I couldn’t finish it because, while Groff writes quite good prose, she also writes quite bad dialogue. Witness the prose:
I cringed: I had been at one point the world’s most eccentric choice for a homecoming queen, having been both nerd and jock, but never quite a beauty. I am tall and thin, true, but only pretty, and even back then I was politically correct, superfeminist, more prone to picketing Miss America than entering it. Yet, when I found myself that day on the football field being crowned in the wet, cold mud, my hypocrite’s heart rejoiced.
That’s a tense, emotionally complex paragraph. What Wilhemina passes off as self-deprecation (I’m not a beauty, and neither am I strictly principled), in fact becomes a litany of self-adulation (I’m pretty, I’m smart and athletic, I’m principled, superfeminist, and, might I add, Homecoming Queen). This is a realistically self-delusional person, who admits to hypocrisy even as she demonstrates that she doesn’t comprehend the depths to which it runs. I’m on board with this character.
Compare that to this dialogue, from the same scene, barely a page later, when Wilhemina talks to her erstwhile homecoming king:
“Nah,” he said. “I’m not married. Don’t believe in it.”
… “What,” I said, “what don’t you believe in?”
… “Oh, the hegemony. The institution itself is both corrupt and exclusionary.” The he snorted to see the look on my face and said, “Don’t look so surprised, Willie U. You aren’t the only one to get over fifteen hundred on your SATs. Just because I stayed home in Templeton doesn’t mean I’m stupid as all that.”
Ugh. It’s not just artless and expository, it’s vague, cliched, and boring.
And that’s the trouble with Monsters. Groff can create nuanced characters. She can have them walk around, and think interesting thoughts in beautiful sentences, and even coexist to a certain degree. But she cannot make them interact in compelling ways.
Every time I felt myself getting absorbed by this novel, along would come some dialogue—two characters clanging together, shouting about what the reader’s supposed to be understanding—and my enthusiasm would flag.
This novel is ultimately not about relationships, or interpersonal drama. It’s about Wilhemina, to the exclusion of all else, and that gets tiresome after a while.