Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: "Ape House"

"Ape House" by Sara Gruen
First published in 2010
My rating: 4 out of 5

The first half of "Ape House," Sara Gruen's follow-up to her masterpiece, "Water for Elephants," captivated me. The most important characters in the novel are six bonobos -- a type of great ape similar to a chimpanzee -- who can communicate with humans through American Sign Language. I was fascinated by descriptions of how incredibly intelligent and human-like the bonobos are. Many of the awe- and aww-inspiring scenes with the apes are based on Gruen's own experiences with bonobos at the Great Ape Trust. Many of the characters in the novel are truly changed and moved by their time with the apes, just as Gruen was.

"Ape House" is predominantly told through the eyes of John Thigpen, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. When the book opens, Thigpen is returning from a day in Kansas interviewing scientist Isabel Duncan at the Great Ape Language Lab, where he was one of the lucky few to get to interact with the six bonobos who live there. Upon returning to Philadelphia, John learns that supposed animal rights activists bombed the lab and set the apes free shortly after he and his crew departed. Isabel, with whom he'd felt an instant connection, was still inside the lab at the time and was critically injured. Soon after, the "liberated" bonobos appear on a rather horrifying reality television show called "Ape House." They are captive in an empty house in the Arizona desert filled with cameras, and rapt audiences watch as the bonobos display their intelligence by ordering food and other items from a computer in the house, as well as play, use sign language and have lots and lots of sex. When this becomes boring and viewership begins to drop, the sinister show producer tries to bait the bonobos into creating more drama. The results of this speak volumes about human nature.

I told you that the first half of the novel captivated me. But I wasn't as thrilled with the second half, which featured the bonobos on the awful reality television show, Isabel working desperately to find a way to free them, betrayals, breakdowns, poronographers, strippers, tabloid newspapers, a meth lab, evil Hollywood producers and a hotel and casino with the most irriating name ever: "Mohegan Moon." Many readers will probably come into "Ape House" expecting it to be like "Water for Elephants." The only similarity is that both novels feature animals with above-average intelligence who interact with humans. The plot of "Ape House" was gripping and horrifying enough to keep me glued to the pages, but it didn't carry me away like "Elephants" did.

Some reviews called Gruen's "Ape House" characters trite, underdeveloped, stereotypical and formulaic. I can see where they're coming from. Others said "Ape House" was predictable. I can see that, too. But I learned a lot about bonobos (a word I'd never even heard before opening the novel) and I finished the book in three days because I was so mesmerized by the plot. I definitely recommend picking it up -- just don't expect it to be the same as "Water for Elephants."

Before I leave you, I do have an interesting tid-bit. I saw on Gruen's website that Ellen Degeneres has bought the movie rights to "Ape House." I think it would make a pretty good movie, but in the novel Gruen tells us more than once that all apes used in the entertainment industry are juveniles, most of whom have been taken from their mothers in the wild. If that's the case, where are the bonobos for the movie going to come from?

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