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20th March
2009
written by Steph
Brought to you by the UW-Madison MFA program...

Brought to you by the UW-Madison MFA program...

Oh, The Monsters of Templeton… what am I to say about you?  You were one of Amazon’s notable books of 2008 back in February, and I almost bought you at a bookstore in D.C. back in November when I realized my tryst with The Name of the Rose was not meant to be (I haven’t looked back, and still no regrets), and I had such high hopes for you.  Is it my fault you could not meet the expectations I had set out for you?  Maybe.  But I kind of think the onus is mostly on you… The Monsters of Templeton revolves in large part around one Wilhelmina (Willie) Upton who decides that after an ill-fated affair with her married graduate advisor in Alaska goes South that she should too and returns home to Templeton.  Templeton has always been a safe haven for Willie – when the rest of the world is crazy, it’s the one place that is unrelentingly the same.  Only not so much, as a monster much like Nessie has been found floating belly up in Lake Glimmerglass, and her erstwhile hippie mother, Vi, has gone all Born Again on her.  Not to mention the parentage bombshell that rocks her world when Vi tells her that all these years she’s believed her father to be one of three possible men living out in a hippie commune is a complete and utter lie.  In fact, Willie’s real father is actually one of the denizens of Templeton, but it’s up to her to figure out who exactly he is.  Willie is equipped only with the knowledge that, much like Vi & herself, he claims to be descended from the town’s founder, Marmaduke Temple… only there have been several generations of Temples between Willie and Marmaduke, and so she must sift through her family’s history to figure out when the philandering was committed and by whom (Professor Plum in the library with a candlestick?).  Marmaduke Temple already actually has two lines of families sprouting from him on the family tree due to an affair with a slave named Hetty Averell, but might there be another one?  Only Willie can find out!  (Or you know, her mother could have told her who her father is since she does know, but then you wouldn’t have a book, so overlook that.) The plot, I thought was fine; I was sufficiently interested in finding out who Willie’s father was, so I can’t fault Groff on that element of her debut novel (except I completely object to the grad student-advisor liason thing, because I am a grad student and the thought of being intimate with my advisor is seriously the most repulsive thing I can come up with).  After all, I love a mystery.  Then again, I’ve since read several reviews that suggest that Monsters is just chick lit masquerading as Serious Literature, and I can’t exactly denounce that claim either.  Along with the mystery father storyline, you’ve also got the return of the highschool not-so-sweet sweetheart, the best friend who is battling Lupus, and also a pregnancy resulting from the Alaskan affair.  Now, don’t get me wrong, certain authors could probably write about all of these storylines in a serious way and not have it come off super sudsy, but Groff is not that author, because she is too damn obsessed with showing off just how off-the-wall quirky she is.  I understand that normal is a relative term, but why is that everyone in Willie’s world is so weird and zany?  It’s superficial, I know, but let’s start with the names:  Primus Dwyer, Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton, Ezekiel Felcher, Solomon Falconer, Guvnor Averell, Euphonia Shipman, Remarkable Prettybones… I could go on, but do I even need to?  These are not the names of real people.  They are Harry Potter names.  And I love Harry Potter, but even with a whiff of magical realism in the story, as Monsters has, you have to be kidding me with those names.  And then there’s the writing, which I realize the names are just an extension of… I think the key thing that is so horribly wrong about Monsters (at least for me) is yet again this quirk factor, in the sense that a little bit goes a looooong way.  Have one of your characters be a crazy kook, and you’ve added some local color to your town.  Have every single person march to the beat of their own drummer, and you have a now constructed novel populated with people the average person cannot relate to, and that’s bad.  I feel a Project Runway analogy is necessary here; you know how inevitably there are one or two contestants each season who the judges say need to edit their work?  There’s just too much going on, and their designs are overly fussy and busy? (As Tim Gunn might say, “A whole lotta look”)  That is how Lauren Groff writes.  She is so busy crafting hyperbolic, outlandish metaphors and similes that I think she loses sight of what the heck it is she wanted to say in the first place.  I mean, imagery is only effective if it actually evokes an image in the reader’s mind, and I spent most of the time wondering what the hell Groff meant by her turns of phrase.  I didn’t keep notes while reading, so I can’t give you specific examples, but I do recall there was a comparison to late summer being soft as a mouse’s fur… and well, ok.  Maybe that sounds nice but does that really evoke anything meaningful for you?  Because it didn’t for me.  I’m sorry, but my mind can only focus on the time Willie mentions that the tomatoes in her mother’s garden are “lusty with juice”, and that is blocking out all other weird imagery that is rife throughout the book.  So, there are the weird descriptors that occur every so often, that I feel are the kind of things people write because they think people will be struck by how creative they are, but really they’ve just written something devoid of meaning, and then there is of course the dialogue, which drove me crazy, mostly because it seems that Groff has never spoken to anyone ever OR, possibly she only speaks to people who are 7 million times wittier than everyone I’ve ever spoken to.  That is, her characters with their fake names seemed all the faker because I couldn’t get over the fact that no one talks the way they do, and certainly not all of the time.  So maddening!  Also, here’s a tip: just because your “historical” characters use the word “thee” and “thy” and “thine”, that is not enough to sufficiently change their voices from your modern-day characters.  If you’re going to tackle writing multiple first-person perspectives across chapters ranging from black slaves in the late 1700s, Native Americans in the 1800s, hippies in the 60s, as well as contemporary individuals, try to make them sound a little distinct. Here’s the thing, the writing in this book actually detracts from the novel and is a burden to the storytelling.  I kept stumbling because of some weird metaphor Groff had come up with, or some new crazy name, or because people were speaking the way people never speak, and I would be shuttled right out of the novel.  Her writing didn’t feel organic and effortless, it felt forced and self-conscious and like she was trying too hard.  And Tony made a good point when I was ranting to him about this, that writing is not necessarily an easy process, but you need to make it look effortless otherwise the whole effort becomes riddled with artifice.  I felt completely disconnected from the characters in this novel because they felt fictional and were unbelievable.  Writing should enhance your story, but when your whole book comes across simply as a vanity piece where you’re showboating your crazy writing skillz the whole time, that is not going to make me like your book or respect your writing.  What was Groff trying to get at with this book?  I still don’t know.  Was it a love letter to her hometown of Cooperstown?  Sure, and I can accept that writers are sometimes selfish in their scope and their motivations, but please write something that people who didn’t grow up in a quirky small town can appreciate.  I didn’t even get a sense of what Templeton was really like because of how damn distracting all of her ridiculous characters were.  I mean, for a book that starts with the discovery of a bonafide lake monster, you’d think it would feel just a little magical.  And instead I felt that the magical realism portion of the book was decidedly unmagical and uninspiring and I think was only thrown in so that Groff could use it to tie up a loose end at the end of the story.  I felt like Groff tried to incorporate a lot of things in this book, but the bottom line is that I feel she did few things well.  There were times when the writing was lovely, and clearly Groff is wildly creative, but she really needs to rein herself in and cut back.  Not everything needs to go into one novel, and never mind every sentence. My overall take on the thing: about 60 pages in, I was convinced that Groff had to be an MFA writer.  So much of the writing was exactly what I’d imagine comes out of creative writing workshops; it just felt so self-indulgent and “look at how creative I am”.  It's a book she wrote for herself, and that's fine, but don't publish it then and sell it to the general public if you really have nothing to say to any of us.  Turns out, she IS an MFA writer. It’s an unfair comparison (because I haven't read the book I'm now going to compare Monsters to) but I got the sense that this is what it would be like to read the acclaimed Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl a few years back.  I didn’t read it, but the take home message I got from most reviews was that most of the time Pessl seemed to be showing off how clever she was and how many books she had read and ultimately the novel itself suffered because of it.  I've taken this out of a review from The Guardian about Pessl's novel but I really feel as though the main criticisms in it could be applied carte blanche to Groff:
The initially droll bibliographical referencing, there to show Blue's pedantic nature and her father's influence, quickly becomes wearisome, but it is the style that is the novel's biggest failing. Baldly put, Pessl has a tin ear for prose. There is a page-by-page cascade of dreadful extended metaphors and distractingly inappropriate similes, from the surreally unilluminating "Her eyes were shockingly beautiful ... sudden sneezes in the dull silence of her face" to the almost heroically bad "not enlightenment but enleadenment".
Ultimately, I found this book tiresome and quite shallow, and while it’s written like it's literary fiction, it doesn’t really have the guts.   I appreciate Groff’s whimsy, I see that she’s crazy creative, and if she weren’t all wrapped up in being melodramatic, she could probably write some pretty fun stuff.   I just wish that Groff had gotten over how creative/clever she was in the first 60 pages of Monsters, as that was about how long it took me; the rest of the book just confirmed what I already suspected.  By the time we get to the reveal as to who Willie's real dad is, not only have we essentially been told the truth through the historical chapters, only to have it reiterated by Willie herself, but moreover I no longer cared and just wanted the book to be done with. Sometimes less really is more. Rating: 3 out of 5

16 Comments

  1. 03/20/2009

    Wow, this one sounds almost atrociously bad. I had been really curious about this book when it first came out, but had never actually encountered anyone who read it. I think the descriptive passages you mention seem very weird. Lusty with Juice? Really? I think that those types of things alone would have ruined the book for me, but after further reading of your review I am pretty sure the whole style of the book would have annoyed. I hate it when a book doesn’t live up to expectations. I think you did an excellent job with articulating your unhappiness with this book, and now I know I can just cross this one off the list.

  2. 03/20/2009

    Yeah, the thing is, this sounds like exactly the kind of book I would like (not from my review, obviously, as I didn’t, but the book flap sounds very convincing). I love magical realism and quirky characters, and yet this fell so completely flat for me. The more I read of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics, the more this book sounds like its long-lost twin, so I’m doubly glad I never read that one when it came out.
     
    I did wind up giving this book a 3, as I did read it the whole way through and there were parts that entertained me and kept me turning the pages. But mostly it felt like a chore. The book has largely been praised, so I felt I should err on the side of liberal praise and give it a passing score; clearly some people will enjoy this book, but I really felt it was mostly a disappointment.

  3. 03/21/2009

    Loved your review. It is kind of hard to rate books when the author has potential but comes off a show-off. I would say I pretty much might feel the same about this book as you, with mixed feelings. I almost bought this, too, and now glad I didn’t. I’d like to read Delicate Edible Birds still, though.

  4. 03/22/2009

    I think that with time, Groff will probably become a stronger writer. Clearly she is very clever and wildly creative – she just needs to learn how to edit and maybe even just gain some confidence as a writer. I’ve heard good things about Delicate Edible Birds, but then again, those good things have been from people I know enjoyed Monsters. I might borrow it from the library one day and look through it, but I’m definitely going to hold off on that for a while!

  5. 03/22/2009

    PS. Steph, may I have your email address? Or you could email me at dreamsongpoem at gmail dot com. Thanks!

  6. 03/22/2009

    I’m sorry the novel didn’t live up to the expectation. I have never heard of this book or the author. Few authors can render metaphor graceful, relevant and natural. I realize I should never compare anyone against Toni Morrison. As to the writing style, books that are too contrived in the writing are not very believable.

  7. 03/22/2009

    You win some, you lose some. I really thought I’d like this book, but I wound up finding the writing annoying instead. It’s a shame, but not every book is going to be to my liking. If you haven’t heard of Groff yet (well, you have now!), I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about her in the future. From what I’ve read, she seems to be an up-and-comer that the publishing types are watching…

  8. 03/24/2009

    Bummer this one turned out to be such a let-down…I love the title and it does sound like something I might have enjoyed but I’m not apt to pick it up without having a good fifteen minutes to sift through it in a bookshop first.

  9. 03/24/2009

    Yeah, I would say this is one of those books that you can tell within the first 20 – 30 pages if it will be to your tastes; definitely the first 50. I struggled with the first 3 chapters or so, and felt they were completely representative of the rest of the novel… I really need to remember that it is essentially never the case that I start off not enjoying a book for writing based reasons only to eventually come to like it! For some reason I always think the book I’m reading will be an exception, even though this is rarely ever true.

  10. 03/25/2009

    Oh dear. I just started this book yesterday–I’ve read maybe a chapter so I haven’t had time to form any kind of opinion, but it sounds like it has a bit of everything that annoys me. I have to really hate a book to give up on it, and I have a rule of giving a book at least 50 pages, but it looks like 50 pages will be all this gets unless the story hooks me.

    I did, however, like Special Topics. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but the story held my interest, and the writing was never really annoying. I hadn’t heard much about it when I read it, so my expectations weren’t especially high, which may have helped.

  11. 03/26/2009

    Teresa, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it, whether you finish it or not. Perhaps it won’t get on your nerves as it did mine – I thought the story was sufficiently interesting here (a whodunnit, only involving fathering a child), but the writing made it feel like such a chore. Not all that time mind you, but often enough that I held it against Groff! 😉 Perhaps you’ll be better able to speak to the haphazard comparison I made to Special Topics!

  12. 03/28/2009

    Steph, I finished the book and generally agree with you about its flaws although I think I liked it better overall than you did (probably because my expectations were effectively lowered by your review). I was pretty well able to ignore the clunkiness of the writing; it just felt a little fussy to me.

    It’s been a while, but I think I did like Special Topics better. As I remember, It didn’t feel quite so schmaltzy, and I really don’t like schmaltzy. Special Topics had more darkness, but this book was more sentimental. Not for me. Middlesex was the more apt comparison for me: multiple pretty good stories cobbled into one novel that doesn’t quite cohere.

  13. 03/28/2009

    Oops–let me clarify. Monsters is more sentimental than Special Topics and is therefore not really for me.

  14. 03/28/2009

    Yes, I think fussy is a great way to describe her writing! I admit my expectations were pretty high going into this one, as I had not read anything negative about the book, so there’s that. That being said, I couldn’t exactly say that I was expecting anything specific from the book, just that it be a good read, and I only found it partly so. When I was at the used bookstore today, I saw a copy of Special Topics, and maddeningly was tempted to pick it up (it was hardcover and only $4…), but I remembered myself and figured that my sanity was surely worth more than $4!
     
    I do see your comparison to Middlesex, though I think overall I enjoyed that more than Monsters (putting aside the Pulitzer issue).

  15. 04/05/2009

    […] I finished reading it, I went around a few blogs to read some reviews. When I read Steph’s review, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the part where she insists on the ridiculous characters […]

  16. […] I finished reading it, I went around a few blogs to read some reviews. When I read Steph’s review, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the part where she insists on the ridiculous characters […]

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