Monday, October 25, 2010

Ape House

Rating: 3 out of 5 Bonobos

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.

After a stellar book like Water for Elephants it is hard to follow that up, and I applaud Sara Gruen for actually releasing another book. Water for Elephants has such a following of fans that Gruen had a monumental task in front of her when writing another book. I am happy to say that her attempt was semi-successful. Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and it was such a huge book that she decided she could never follow-up with another book. While that is sad because Lee was such a remarkable talent, I think it would have lessened her classic if she had written more.

Now, with that said, I feel that I have to defend Gruen. I read some other reviews on this book and I was getting so frustrated with how many people compared it to Water for Elephants. Yes, it is written by the same author, but it is a completely different story.

First of all, Water for Elephants takes place in the Depression Era while Ape House is smack dab in the middle of our technology-driven, reality-TV thriving time. The characters have obvious differences. And, honestly, the focus is more on the animal element in this book than there was in Water for Elephants. Where the animals are a major backdrop to Water for Elephants they are a pivotal piece in Ape House. Everything hinges on the rescuing of the bonobos from the hands of an ex-porn king producer only concerned with ratings and not the safety and well-being of the apes.

If you judge the two books as completely separate entities it becomes more interesting. Ape House is really an incredible book. Had Gruen written it first, people probably would have liked it more than her previous novel. What I loved about it was that she compares human nature to ape nature, and, what we find, is that there really are more similarities than we would care to admit.

When John Thigpen gets jealous about men staring at her wife at a pool, he mouths "Mine," to them, establishing ownership in a very animalistic way. At the end, when John's wife thinks that he had an affair, she is found cleaning, scrubbing away germs in the bathroom, in a fury. Isabelle is a protective woman who throws food in the face of a man she thinks is partially responsible for the bombing of her ape project. These are just some of the behaviors we see the human characters exhibit. At some points, the apes seem more human than the humans. This, to me, is a stunning insight and Sara Gruen never forces it. She implies it subtly and it works.

What doesn't work, for me, is the story. At times it is unbelievable and, sometimes, contrived. While there are moments of "Woah!" I was never really fully drawn into the story. The problem with having a story where you're also showing the humans as an exhibit is it creates some sort of distance between the reader and the characters which is hard to do right. I know I could never do it in my own writing.

As far as the characters, I actually really liked John Thigpen, but Isabelle is hard to like. Through the whole book she is abrasive and traumatized. Although there are moments where I liked her, she was my least favorite of the cast. John is a victim, however, which bugs me. He just seems to get run over and never really takes control of the situation until the very end. I was pleased when he finally stood up for himself.

My favorite character, by far, was Celia. She was awesome and, if Gruen were to write a book with her as the main character, I would so be there.

So, I judged this book without thinking about Water for Elephants and I found that it still comes up a little short. While it is really good, it isn't spectacular. I do feel smarter for knowing more about the bonobos, but that is about it. That is why I gave it 3 out of 5 bonobos. Here's to hoping that Sara Gruen does not give up and keeps writing because she is truly a remarkable talent in our contemporary literature world.

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