The much anticipated Ape House hit the shelves yesterday and we were lucky enough to get a last minute copy from the publisher. And so, here we get to review Sara Gruen’s Ape House. Gruen’s fourth novel follows on the heels of an international bestseller and soon to be movie blockbuster starring some of Hollywood’s hottest actors, Water for Elephants. Like many authors who move forward after a blockbuster, their next book inevitably has much hype to live up too.
Ape House opens sweetly, as John Thigpen a reporter interviews a researcher, Isabel Duncan and her family of Bonobos. The bonobos, Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jaelani and Makena, are fun-loving and endearing, as they rummage through gift bags presented by the reporter trying to get in their good graces. Kisses and signed endearments show the ape’s appreciation and John is obviously touched by apes’ communication. Which it turns out is the whole point of research- the apes understand English and respond using American Sign Language and Lexigrams.
This sweet scene is interrupted several pages later with an explosion that leaves Isabel in critical condition and the apes sold. Isabel’s finance is illusive, her co-worker is questioned as suspect in the bombing and no one will tell her where her bonobos have gone.
Meanwhile, John has his own problems, his wife is a depressed, unsuccessful author, his career is hitting the skids quickly after an ambitious co-worker takes over his story and his nosy mother-in-law organizes his sex toys. Eventually, Thigpen and Duncan cross paths again. Isabel gives John a scoop that could resuscitate his career and exposes the terrorist behind the explosion.
Gruen has a lot going on in this story and she shines where she has in the past, in the tender relationships between her protagonist and animals. The scenes with the bonobos are delightful. There are the makings of an interesting commentary on human behavior as seen through our closest relatives’ actions, that may make you question our superior status.
Unfortunately, this important theme is watered down when mixed in with all the other story-lines going on. We are distracted by superficial relationship problems, colorfully- dyed hair, and a Russian stripper with a heart of gold. There is a reference early on that John Thigpen enjoys books of the blowing-up variety made famous by the Dan Browns of the world and Gruen does her fair share of explosion and darting off to new locations.
We were really looking forward to this new novel for two reasons; first, we enjoyed Water for Elephants immensely and recommended it to many friends and family, and second, we have a bit of a thing for great apes, admitting a little crush on Jane Goodall. Gruen did not disappoint with her betrayal of the bonobos and her obvious admiration for the animals illuminates the bonobos scenes.
If only the story was more ape and less human.
Ape House by Sara Gruen was received as a free review copy by Boston Book Bums