I've discovered the solution to the tepid second novel that critics' lore insists a promising young novelist will inevitably produce. Just wait and read the second novel first, and then go back and read the first. Earlier this year I read Arcadia, Lauren Groff's second novel. It was good. Darn good, in fact. So good it was one of the contenders in the Tournament of Books.
But I just finished The Monsters of Templeton, Groff's debut novel published in 2008, and it blew Arcadia right out of the water. Monsters has, well, a monster. A real one. We're not talking some metaphoric mental monster, but an actual, honest-to-god, lives-in-the-lake, and may-or-may-not-be-drowing-people monster.
And yes, okay, the monster is in fact symbolic of the monstrous secrets being kept in the town that surface at the same time as the monster. It wouldn't be lit-rah-cha if there wasn't any symbolism, of course. But Groff took what could've been an average novel on well-worn themes (daddy issues much?) and pulled the story-telling equivalent of lifting a rabbit out of a top hat. Except the rabbit isn't a boring old rabbit. It's a monster. A real, live monster, "huge, a heavy cream color that darkened to lemon in places. . . . It looked like a carp grown enormous, with a carp's fat belly and round eye, but with a long, articulated neck like a ballet dancer's and four finned legs, plump as a frog." When was the last time you got to read about a monster outside of a horror novel? Never, yeah?
On more, shall we say, traditional grounds, the novel is just as skilled as Arcadia. It looks at similar themes in terms of what constitutes a family, how perceptions and knowledge are formed, and what happens when a new reality intrudes. The main character, Willie Upton, searches her family's history to reveal her own "monsters," which for the most part aren't that monstrous, but really are only the departures from "authorized" history that happen in every family. As Willie explores her family's history back to her founding ancestors in the 18th century, Groff explores the quintessential American family in microcosm, and thus presents us with a portrait of our own American geniture. Although Willie is the protagonist who must live with the consequences, Groff lets each generation tell its own story and make its own confessions. Each generation's story is layered on another, not necessarily in chronological order, creating new understandings of what it means to be Willie Upton, and, for the rest of us, what it means to be a descendent of the American experiment—although that really sounds too grand for the immediate, intimate nature of this story.
As in Arcadia, Groff's prose is impressive. It manages to be exquisite and delicate without looking like she tried to make it exquisite and delicate. In the course of the week or so that I was reading Monsters, I found myself thinking in Groff's voice, the way you do when you're engrossed in a novel. Letting an author infect my brain like that is probably the highest praise I can give any writer.
So you must definitely read The Monsters of Templeton, not least because it is a relevant story told in beautiful prose. But mostly you must read Monsters because of the monster. How often as an adult do you get to read about a monster you can really believe in?
Oh, and the friendly if somewhat anal-retentive ghost. Did I mention the ghost? I can't believe I forgot to tell you about the ghost!