Lauren Groff's debut novel The Monsters of Templeton (Hyperion, 2008) is a remarkable book, which I would definitely put in my top five for 2008 thus far. Deftly weaving history and literary references with other, less conventional elements (cryptozoology, genealogy, &c.), Groff has crafted a refreshingly original work.
Wilhelmina (Willie) Upton, 28, our main character and sometime narrator, returns to her hometown of Templeton, NY (a scarcely disguised Cooperstown, using the name for the village that James Fenimore Cooper used in his own Leatherstocking tales for the town founded by his father), disgraced and confused. Her mother doesn't help things along by revealing that her unknown father was in fact a Templeton man rather than the California hippie Willie had always been led to believe ... and not only was he a Templeton man, but a descendant of the Templeton man, town founder Marmaduke Temple himself (making Willie a direct Temple descendant thrice over, for reasons better explained by reading the book).
Willie has a rough time settling back into Templeton life: renewing acquaintances, living with her mother, dealing with the issues she left behind. But she dives into the quest for her father, gorging on archival research [why, by the way, does every book which features library research have to include a theft?! It's quite disturbing] and reading the Temple canon in search of clues. The clues she finds in letters, diaries and other writings are included in the book, as are first-person narratives from some of the historical characters she comes across. These add much to the novel, and I quite enjoyed them. Oh, and there's a dead lake monster, too.
I think I was particularly taken with the novel because I happen to know Cooperstown quite well; I grew up near there, camped on the shores of the lake quite often and spent several summers working in the print shop at the Farmer's Museum. So I understood the references to the town and its tensions in a way that people unconnected with the place might not do (not that it would necessarily detract from anyone else's reading of the book, I just think it enhanced mine a bit).
One (of the two!) reviews of Monsters in the NYTimes called the work overambitious. Tosh. What are debut novels for if not to be ambitious? All credit to Lauren Groff for writing an ambitious book; it's a fine effort, and I'll very much look forward to the next one.