I dare say that it would be a challenge to find an author who writes about animals with more respect or more affection than Sara Gruen. Ape House is such a tale, as Sara shares a story of betrayal and animal rights advocacy concerning Bonobo apes, and their extraordinary ability to communicate with their human companions.
As noted by Sara Gruen:
Most of the conversations between the Bonobos and humans in Ape House are based on actual conversations with great apes, including Koko, Washoe, Booey, Kanzi, and Panbanisha. Many of the ape-based scenes in this book are also based on fact, although I have taken the fiction writer’s liberty of fudging names, dates, and places.
The stars of Gruen’s story, the Bonobos, have been lovingly cared for and taught American Sign Language by linguistic scientist Isabel Duncan. All is right with the world until their facility is bombed, Isabel is hospitalized, and the Bonobos are sold to a sleazy executive who’s best known for his work in the porn industry. Interesting. The executive’s brainchild is to toss the educated Bonobos into a “reality TV” setting (a blockaded home), and air their interactions live to a 24/7 subscribing audience. Not surprisingly, the program is called Ape House. The executive surmises that the regular sexual interactions of the Bonobos (part of their social behavior) will be titillating enough to keep viewers hooked. Predictably, interest in Ape House wanes. When watching the Apes eating cheeseburgers and M&Ms gets dull, he sends in things like cap guns and blow-up dolls. It’s up to Isabel to save the Bonobos from this comic-book villain, and his inevitable intent to sell them to the highest-bidding research lab when the ratings slide.
The other half of the book revolves around John Thigpen, a hapless journalist who was originally charged to write about Duncan’s work, only to have the story given to a bratty colleague. John and his extraordinarily whiny wife Amanda bump through their messy careers, and you know that the book is leading to the “story of a lifetime” for John, with the predictable conclusion of the book. I felt very little for this pair, and I know I was supposed to care for them as much as Gruen clearly did. I tried, but just could not muster any empathy or affection.
Overall, while the premise was interesting (perhaps a little sensationalistic), the characters were formulaic. Every stereotype was available: the animal rights heroine, the struggling journalist, the rotten-to-the-core businessman, the hooker with a heart of gold, the punk-haired assistant, the nasty ex-boyfriend… they were all there, hitting their cues. This is where the book lost me. I don’t want to correctly predict a book’s outcomes. I don’t want to know what characters will say before they open their mouths. Being one-dimensional, not one of the (human) characters of Ape House had any surprises to offer. I would have loved a bit of a twist here and there.
Disappointment aside, I must say that the Bonobos stole the show. Any time Gruen wrote of their behavior, their language acquisition, or their affection for one another, she was clearly in her element. No — more than that… she shone. Gruen did a lovely job of capturing the apes’ humanness, and you could not help but feel anger when they were all betrayed. The gist of the book was clearly that the Bonobos were more human than the people. Gruen masterfully described every detail of their movements, their facial expressions, and their emotions. The Bonobos were unquestionably the best part of the story, as Gruen has a wonderful gift for talking on behalf of creatures great and small. I suppose the book would have held more magic for me if there had been more of the apes, and less of the people.
I will also note that I will pick up another book by Sara Gruen one day, because reading about animals rights from the perspective of the animals is never a waste of anyone’s time. For that, hats off to Ms. Gruen. More animals could benefit from her voice.
I’m giving Ape House 3 stars in spite of my disappointment with the human characters, and the predictability of the plot. I just can’t fault the Great Apes for those things. I will also not soon forget them.