Ape House: A Novel
by Sara Gruen
Add my name to the long list of readers who were enamored with Sara Gruen's last novel, Water for Elephants. I could not have been more excited when I learned that her follow-up would deal with ape language experiments, as that's been a subject of great interest for years. This novel should have been a slam dunk in Sara Gruen's capable hands. But while it's undeniable that I enjoyed reading The Ape House, the word that came to mind over and over was "unworthy." In the hands of some average Joe writer, I would have been perfectly happy with this book, but Sara, you're better than this.
The novel opens with the New Year's Day visit (because apparently these people don't believe in holidays) of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen and two colleagues to the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City. John is there to talk not only to primatologist Isabel Duncan, but also to her charges--six bonobos who communicate very effectively with their human friends using American Sign Language or typing on a special computer.
The novel gets off to an absolutely charming start as we witness John's meeting with the apes. Things go reasonably well, and John is satisfied as he and his colleagues head home. Almost upon arrival, however, he learns that a shocking act of violence has taken place back in Kansas City, sending the lives of Isabel and her primate family (for that is what they are) into turmoil.
I had read this book prior to publication, and I didn't know what to expect plot-wise. Ms. Gruen certainly managed to surprise me with where she went. And it was all very interesting in a lurid, slightly sleazy way. I definitely kept turning the pages, but I felt the story being told was beneath her.
The bonobos were great, and I don't know how anyone could fail to fall in love with them, in person or on the page. Additionally, reporter Thigpen made an appealing everyman protagonist. I don't know that Isabel Duncan was his equal. I get that she's passionate. I get that she's traumatized. But I didn't feel that I ever got a sense of the woman behind her most obvious, plot-driven character traits. And while there are plenty of antagonists in this story, they're consistently painted in shades of black and white with no complexity at all.
What bugged me most of all, however, was that some of the plotting was absolutely by-the-numbers, and shockingly amateurish--nothing more so than the entire Pinegar sub-plot. Cringe-worthy. Look, there's a lot to like in this novel, but if you're expecting anything even nearly on par with Water for Elephants, you're going to be bitterly disappointed.