Ape House

What’s the difference between visiting a zoo and watching a TV reality show?  You can provide the punch line – not too hard to imagine.  In Ape House, Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, once again uses man’s relationship with the animal world to suggest that some animals may be more human than humans.

The story jolts open with the bombing of the Great Ape Language Lab, and then toggles back and forth from Isabel Duncan, a modern Jane Goodall, who is severely injured in the attack, and John Thigpen, the journalist trying to cover the story. Duncan has been studying the behavior of the apes – bonobos–  who can communicate in sign language, make decisions, and generally act like humans who like sex – a lot of it.  It’s this characteristic that gets them their own reality show – Ape House.

Although it’s not clear who was really responsible for the bombing, and subsequent transfer of the bonobos from their safe haven to reality TV,  likely villains stalk the action.  Suspects include: the demonstrators waving placards outside the lab;  the TV show producer and rich guru of porn – think, Larry Flynt of Penthouse fame; Peter, head scientist with a shady past, and Isabel’s lover.

Gruen uses John Thigpen as the intelligent well-meaning character who gets sucked in.  Weighing his bravery (he actually puts out a fire on a burning man) and common sense against his need to succeed, Gruen  has him confronting prostitutes and writing for a trashy tabloid, while still trying to salvage his integrity to write that Pulitzer story.   His personal life only adds to the drama and offers some comedy, with his wife succumbing to Hollywood’s superficiality and his mother-in-law’s obsessive-compulsive behavior.

The apes are the heroes in the story, with well-meaning humans trying to undo the wrong that humans initiated just by interfering in the apes’ lives.  Gruen did her homework at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, and incorporates her research on the bonobos into her story.  Bonobos really can communicate in language.


Ape House has something for every reader – action (things get blown up and set on fire; mystery (whodunit to the apes, the lab, the scientist); love stories (John and his wife; comedy (apes ordering greasy take-out); and Gruen’s smattering of  philosophical thoughtfulness about beauty, common sense, and humanity.

If you liked her Water for Elephants, you are going to love the apes.

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