Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ape House is NOT the Jersey Shore of the animal world

Ape House
Sara Gruen

I was unsure about Gruen's follow-up to Water For Elephants, which made my Top Ten List of 2009. I am often wildly disappointed by an author's work directly following the one that left me with the rare literary glow (please see: Her Fearful Symmetry). However, while The Ape House is not the literary genius of Water for Elephants, it is a unique and touching novel that proves Gruen is not one-hit wonder.

The Great Ape Language Lab of the University of Kansas houses six amazing apes, bonobos to be exact - these six primates are able to communicate extensively with their human keepers through both American Sign Language and English, exhibiting a sophisticated manner that involves full conversations, rationale, and cognitive reasoning. When John Thigpen covers the GALL for a newspaper piece he is instantly enamored of the lovable apes and impressed by their primary caregiver, Dr. Isabel Duncan. However, an act of violence at the lab sends the bonobos on an unlikely journey that catapults them into the public eye - as the stars of a reality TV show, The Ape House.

At first, the premise of this book had me turning up my nose: Really? A reality TV show involving apes that centers on the casual manner in which they regard sex? Umm, don't we have that? It's called Jersey Shore! I had no interest in reading about apes prepping for sex with GTL or expressing their excitement by fist pumping. However, this book had mystery, love, and intrigue.

Gruen did an amazing job of basing the Great Ape Language Lab on actual research that is currently being done in Iowa; in fact, the first interaction that John has with the apes is drawn directly from her first interaction. By mixing fact with her wonderful fiction, she leaves no doubt that bonobos deserve to be treated as sentient beings that are capable of complex feelings, emotions, and understanding - they are humans closest relatives. I absolutely fell in love with the apes and connected with them possibly more than any other character in the book.

Aside from the fury stars of The Ape House, I truly enjoyed John. There was no classic love story involved, John was already married at the opening, but I greatly enjoyed the relationship of he and his wife - it wasn't perfect, they both were struggling to pursue their dreams while maintaining a marriage, but they absolutely loved each other and that showed. It was a refreshing change from reading about 1) perfect relationships and 2) relationships doomed to failure. The other characters were also pretty well-written but I felt that Isabel had multiple layers that were set-up but never explored.

Overall, a wonderfully engaging book that had me resisting closing it for even a second. If you were a fan of Water for Elephants but still debating about The Ape House, definitely give it a whirl!

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