Lauren Groff's exuberant debut follows in the footsteps of notable first novels like Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated with its blend of illustrations, photographs and text. And like the main characters of Foer and Pessl, Groff's quirky protagonist, 28-year-old Willie Upton, is trying to solve a mystery about her past. Luckily, The Monsters of Templeton also marks the appearance of an original talent that can stand on its own in comparison to these literary heavyweights.

As the novel opens, Willie has returned to Templeton, New York, after a disastrous affair with her doctoral advisor at Stanford. Her disgrace is a disappointment to her mother, Vi, who had come back to town under similar conditions before Willie's birth. To jar Willie out of her depression, Vi shares a shocking revelation: Willie's birth was not the result of a one-night stand with a fellow hippie in a commune, as Willie had always supposed, but a one-night stand with a now-married Templeton resident. However, Vi refuses to tell Willie who her father is. Her only clue is that he, like Vi, was descended from the town's founder, Marmaduke Temple.

Far from being a dull geneaology search, Willie's quest for her biological father unearths such remarkable ancestors as Cinnamon and Charlotte, distant cousins whose ladylike correspondence leads to blackmail and betrayal; the "extraordinarily hirsute" Richard Temple; and a mute Indian girl, Noname. As she sorts through the past, Willie uncovers secrets galore but also learns to deal with her present-day problems.

Templeton is based on Groff's hometown of Cooperstown, which was founded by James Fenimore Cooper (who bears a passing resemblance to Marmaduke Temple). Groff's writing is ambitious, playful, intelligent and never dull; she adroitly hops backward and forward in time and assumes different narrative voices—including that of Templeton's famous lake monster, who knows all the town's secrets. Readers will emphathize with Willie as she discovers that while the past is important, the present is what you make it.

 

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