"My town had begun to insert itself subtly under my skin again. I could feel it there, moving shards, painfully alive."
The notion of place, of home, affects us deeply, working in its invisible, mysterious way. We are shaped by it: our culture, our aspirations, our feelings of security. And yet one can never put a finger on it and say that, that, is how place affected me.
How much more so for Willie Upton, the protagonist of Lauren Groff's creative and unique debut novel The Monsters of Templeton. Willie descended from Templeton's founder by two separate lineages, so her entire ancestry is tied up in the town's history. In the midst of a crisis, she returns home. "I come home to Templeton because it's the only place in the world that never changes, and I mean never, never changes...I always thought, hey, if the ice caps melt and all the cities of the world are swallowed up, Templeton will be fine...But it doesn't seem right anymore."
Her mother, upon her arrival, tells her that her father is not an unknown San Francisco hippie but in fact a Templeton man, related to the town's founder by a third line of ancestry. In search of him, Willie scours the historical record for hints of the illegitimate birth that began his line. Chapters of Willie's Templeton are interposed with first-hand writings of her ancestors and their Templetons. The town lives in the novel, simultaneously existing in the 17-, 18-, 19-, and 2000's. The Templeton she knows becomes enmeshed with the Templetons of the past, a town marked not by constancy but by continual renewal, regrowth, and possibility.
When Willie finds her father, when she collects the threads of her ancestors, of Templeton, and weaves them together. She writes, "I knew, even then, what I couldn't admit that I had known: that now that I could lay claim to more predecessors, to more history, it wouldn't vastly change the course of my future...Because even though I now had a father, he brought with him such thicknesses of ancestors that it would be impossible to dig and understand them all...It was too much. It was impossible to understand it all. / And yet, we cling to these things. We pretend to be able to understand...we need a mass of ancestors at our backs as ballast. Sometimes, we feel it's impossible to push into the future without such a weight behind us, without such heaviness to keep us steady, even if it is imaginary."
And yet this rich theme, place and ancestry, the "weight behind us," is little more than a beam glancing across the surface of Groff's story, a story so full