Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Ape House (Sara Gruen)

Ape House
Written By: Sara Gruen
Published By: Spiegel & Grau
Publishing Date: September 7, 2010
Pages: 320

Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships—but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.

Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn’t understand people, but animals she gets—especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she’s ever felt among humans . . . until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what’s really going on inside.

When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and “liberating” the apes, John’s human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he’ll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggest—and unlikeliest—phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda.

Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen’s place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before.

My FH purchased this book a few months before we moved to America and it was one of the new novels he ended up packing in his suitcase. I was unprepared for the long, boring trips on the subways and I hadn't managed to buy a kindle yet, so I picked up Ape House. It then proceeded to blow me away.

Isabel has been working with bonobos for years, teaching them how to communicate via sign language and monitoring their progress as they grow and learn how to communicate with humans. John is suffering a slump in his journalism career and looking for a 'pick me up', decides to write a human interest piece on Isabel and the bonobos. He comes prepared with treats and games for the apes and quickly earns their trust. On his way out he notices the protestors at the gates of the lab but ignores them to head home to his semi-strained marriage. Later that night, with Isabel still inside, the lab explodes. From this point on the intensity of the story continues to rise, as more twists and turns are thrown at your face without giving you enough time to realise they're coming.

I really liked the character of Isabel. She's brave, strong, sweet, loving and entirely devoted to those apes. Throughout the novel, she battles a lot of hurdles and has to realise who she can and can't trust. One thing I love about Isabel is that she very firmly knows who she is. She knows where she belongs and how to be her own person.

I liked John as well. I found him to be quite a complex character. He struggles with where he fits in the world, he struggles with his career and his marriage, but he's also devoted. He knows where he should be and he strives to get to that point. He also knows right from wrong and isn't afraid to call out anyone who doesn't play by the rules.

Of course there are some really nasty characters on board in this book. Some are outright nasty from the beginning, some completely blind-sighted me - I didn't even see their evilness coming! I like books that surprise you like that. Very well written, Ms Gruen!

I really loved the plot of this novel. It was different than the books I normally read. The research that obviously went into writing this story was evident, and it was amazing how much I learned about bonobos and their nature just by reading this novel. The book was fast moving, exciting and I couldn't barely put it down.

I later read Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's more well known book, and while I enjoyed it a lot I think I preferred Ape House. They're very different but I found the story of Ape House much more intense and fast paced.


One thing I also loved about this book is that throughout most of the story it seemed like the sexual tension between John and Isabel might amount to something. I found it really refreshing to see that instead of giving in to it, he really worked hard at making his wife happy and working on their marriage. It's not something you often see in novels, and it was really nice to see.


Overall I definitely recommend this book. I give Ape House 5 star.

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