This is quite an unusual, hybrid book. There were passages I enjoyed a lot. The atmosphere and description of Templeton were something to savour. The idea of a monster living in the lake and the ghost in Willie’s bedroom appealed to me a great deal as well. But as much as I loved the beginning and many later parts I lost patience at times. My biggest problem was that I found it too exuberant and too artificial. It is full of great descriptions but totally lacks any psychological depth. The characters, Willie, her mother Vi, Cassandra and many others are charming but they are two-dimensional. Still I can understand that this book found his ardent fans.
At the beginning we see Willie depressed and sad. She is pregnant from her affair with her professor and comes back to Templeton where she grew up looking for refuge. She considers this to be a total failure. She has left Templeton for San Francisco a few years back. Templeton, as we read in the foreword, is actually Cooperstown, Groff’s hometown. It is also the hometown of James Fenimore Cooper. A small town with all the charm of a small town. While away in California Lauren Groff was so homesick that she decided to write about her town.
Apart from being pregnant and desperate, Willie hears from her mother, that she is actually the daughter of someone from Templeton. After having thought she was the offspring of her mother’s casual encounters with different men during her hippie days, this comes as quite a shock. Willie being an archeologist and trained in research takes this bit of information as a challenge. She starts to investigate the story of her illustrious family, descendants of the great Marmaduke Temple (aka James Fenimore Cooper) in order to find out who her father is. She knows that one of the men in her genealogical tree is illegitimate and this information will lead her to her father.
The story of Willie is interspersed with journal entries, letters, diaries, stories of her ancestors. They are quite different in tone, some are like short stories in their own right and seem to have been written in another century, some were, for me, just tiresome diversions.
In the end, Willie knows the name of her father. She has learnt a great deal about her family and her town. The weak and depressed Willie of the beginning is strong again and able to go out into the world where a brilliant future is waiting for her.
This book deals with some heavy and important themes like illegitimacy / legitimacy / roots /origins / parenthood/ history. In the beginning there are a lot of signs of the insecurity of the times we live in but throughout the novel this is more and more abandoned. It is as if the author wanted to say: When you know your origins and where you belong you can never get lost and nothing can really harm you. I am not sure I agree with this.
Be it as it may, this is an original book and some parts are memorable. It’s just somewhat flawed as a whole.
I would really like to do Lauren Groff justice so maybe I should let her speak for herself: