Tags: Auntie Em, Glinda, Gone with the Wind, hippy, lake monster, lauren groff, memorable first sentences, Moby Dick, Monsters of Templeton, mother-daughter relationship, Scarlett O'Hara, single motherhood, The Monsters of Templeton, The Wizard of Oz
There is something spectacular about a book whose first line lures you into its spell like a siphon and never lets you go. In my 36 years of reading, there has only been two books whose first lines I’ve memorized and cannot forget:
With that line, I fell in love with Scarlett and couldn’t wait to find out just what it was about her that had men panting like exercised puppies. There was no way I could not read the book after just that first sentence – and I never thought to. With the noted exception of Moby Dick, I’ve found that a compelling first sentence isn’t a fluke. It’s a sign of a gifted author and a book worthy of reading.
The fact of the matter is that most books I’ve read and even those I’ve enjoyed immensely begin forgettably. This is the 41st book I’ve read this year and prior to picking up this book, not a single first sentence has struck me this year – and I’ve read some great novels. So, when I read, re-read, and then could not stop thinking about:
“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”
I knew that this would be a book I would love. I finished this book as satisfied as I was with the first sentence. This is a novel that I will keep forever and re-read several times.
The Monsters of Templeton is the story of Willie Sunshine Upton, a young graduate student who unexpectedly returns to her ancestral home “steeped in disgrace” just as her home town is overcome with media upon the discovery of an as-of-yet undiscovered mammalian creature. The existence – or actually previous existence – of the monster gives this novel a Gothic feel. This along with the mystery of Willie’s famous family prove to work together well.
Willie returned to her mother, Vi, in hopes of finding a safe place to lick her wounds before facing the responsibilities and consequences of the choices she’d recently made. Vi, a single mother and former hippy, refuses to let her daughter settle, even if it is into shame. As a result of her recent radical religious conversion, Vi feels the need to come clean to Willie. She tells her that she is not the product of an orgy-istic time in San Francisco. In fact, Willie’s father is alive and well in Templeton. He never knew of her existence. When Willie asks who he is, Vi refuses to tell her. She provides only a single clue: he, just like Willie and Vi, is related to Marmaduke Temple, the father of Templeton. It was as if Vi through down the gauntlet. Willie, no matter how down her current circumstances have made her, cannot sit still having this mystery hanging around her. Her archaeological dig through her family’s past proves to be an enchanting and humorous adventure.
I don’t want to give away many details in this review. I enjoyed uncovering things along the way with Willie. I will say (that just about everything else recently in my life) that there was a strong connection for me between Vi and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Both characters hold an important truth that could very easily be given to the young woman in need: Willie needs to know who her father is and Dorothy needs to know how to get back to Kansas. If this information was simply handed over, what would have happened? Neither Willie nor Dorothy would never grasped or appreciated the importance of family in their souls. In that way, what both characters needed was the discovery as much as the truth. Given that Glinda is traditionally played by the same actress as Auntie Em, it seems that teaching a child to learn for herself is the mark of the best mother/mother figure.
The Monsters of Templeton is mainly narrated by Willie, but there are also sections narrated by The Running Buds, Templeton’s jogging protectors, and several of Willie’s ancestors. I found myself drawn into the genealogical research myself. The pictures, portraits, and family trees along the way also made me feel included. Just as with Special Topics in Calamity Physics, they enhance the experience and do not feel out of place.
One of the best things about reading this book was the humor. There were several times I found myself chuckling out loud while I was reading. I don’t do that very often. It was this humor that endeared the book and its characters to me. Perhaps it was because I am of a similar age to Willie’s character that I found the sarcasm and smack talk genuine. It is such a pleasure to read a book that is both interesting and fun.
** Thank you Barnes and Noble for providing me with an Advance Reading Copy of this book. Your First Look Book Club is an incredible opportunity. **
To buy this novel, click here.
Tags: Benedictine monastery, having sex with Catholic clergy, Mermaid Chair, mid-life crisis, mother-daughter relationship, St. Senera, Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair, The Secret Life of Bees
I was excited to begin this book because I loved her previous novel, The Secret Lives of Bees so much. In a word, I am disappointed with this book. This book was sluggish. There were sections that I had force myself to sit down and read. There are numerous paragraphs of descriptions of food, flora, and fauna that I used speed reading to get my way through. For a while I wasn’t sure what was lacking in The Mermaid Chair. I thought perhaps it was because of my state of mind or other changes in my life. By the end, I know that it was a lack of substance and a forced narrative that made the experience of reading this book almost intolerable. Ask Danny. I even stuck my tongue out at the book last night.
This book begins with Jessie basically having a mid-life crisis. She’s married to a psychiatrist and her only daughter has moved away to college. She herself is an artist, but it has become more of a hobby and less of a vocation over the years. She doesn’t know who she is outside of her relationships, even going back to her late father. When her crazy, Roman Catholic fanatic mother chops off her right index finger, Jessie has her opportunity to escape her life, even if that means that she’ll have to come face to face with the mother she’s distanced herself from because of the lunatic Nelle evolved into after her husband’s death 33 years prior.
Her mother lives on an island off of the South Carolina coast near Charleston. Also located on this island is a Benedictine monastery whose patron saint is St. Senara, a mermaid who became human and then converted to Catholicism. One of the key tourist attractions is the Mermaid Chair that is located in the chapel. This Mermaid Chair was thought to have spiritual powers. Nelle was burying her finger next to St. Senara’s statue when Jessie arrives. While helping her dig the finger’s grave, Jessie meets Brother Thomas. From here, she is consumed with this man.
The remainder of the novel follows Jessie as she investigates why her mother mutilated herself, begins a formal separation from her husband, Hugh, explores a new relationship with Brother Thomas, and finds herself. She spends much more time and energy on the men in her life and herself than she does on her mother. The entire thing with her mother felt like a cheap narrative device. The resolution of that storyline was anticlimactic to me. It only served to make me dread finishing the novel even more.
The fact that Jessie pursues an affair with a monk did not help to endear me to either character. It’s not that I can’t let myself go and get lost in the romance of two individuals risking and giving up all that is important to them to be together. People make and break vows every day. I guess in light of the current state of the priesthood and my own experiences with trusted clergymen, I don’t find this spectacular in anyway. Perhaps older or more traditional Catholic readers would find this aspect of the storyline more interesting or thought provoking. Maybe this is why over the course of the book the reader discovers that it takes place in the late 1980s. I just believe that Whit’s (Brother Thomas) vows to the Catholic Church are no more or no less holy than Jessie’s marriage vows to Hugh. Certainly, clergy make a vow to Christ as well. According to Catholic theology, so do married couples. That makes those vows of equal import to me.
In the end, issues of self, marriage, and faith all work out exactly as I had anticipated from the beginning. I can’t help but think that it was a waste of my time to read it. Still, you can’t always read great books. Reading the duds helps you to appreciate those that you enjoy. It also helps you define the qualities of literature and other writings that make this life come alive in your imagination. Through the process or reading you become a better reader and learn things about yourself that you may not otherwise have known. That might not have all of the sex and spectacle the author added to Jessie’s journey into self, but it’s honest.