Ape House is many things. One one level it’s the story of the Great Ape House, a primate language research facility and Isabel Duncan, the main researcher there. Isabel has devoted her life to working with bonobos, a kind of primate, so much so that she considers the bonobos to be her family. The detailed research that Sara Gruen did for this book is evident throughout. It’s one of those books that opens up a new world to the reader, at least it did for me.
It’s also the story of John Thigpen, a reporter who visits the lab to do a story on the work being done there. After an explosion at the lab “liberates” the bonobos and severely injures Isabel, the action in the book speeds up. The bonobos end up as the stars of a reality show called Ape House and Isabel travels to the site to try and rescue them. John ends up there also as he investigates who is behind the explosion.
I liked Isabel and I liked John and I really liked the bonobos. I was fascinated by the details of primates and language. I thought the concept of a reality show was completely hilarious and sadly quite believable. So that’s what I liked.
What I didn’t like was all the other stuff that Gruen put into this book. Every character screams QUIRKY. There is the green haired vegan protestor, the stripper, the meth lab pizza joint with a pit bull that John ends up rescuing, the tattooed lab intern. And then there is John’s wife, Amanda, who has her own side story involving a major change in career, a desire to have a child and a complex relationship with her own family that involves a whole other set of quirky characters. It’s not so much that it’s difficult to follow the storyline but more that for most of these sidestories my thought was “who cares”. I just wanted to get back to reading about the bonobos.
If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the next paragraph.
There is also the hint of attraction between John and Isabel. I don’t mind reading about wrong behavior if it’s presented as wrong behavior (Anna Karenina is the classic example) or if it’s essential to the storyline but I don’t like an author to flirt around with marital infidelity as if it just doesn’t matter. In the end, John is faithful to his wife but I felt like the idea of him being attracted to another woman was presented as something normal and totally okay. That bothered me. It also was completely unnecessary to the storyline.
So overall, a bit of a mixed review. Still, Gruen is a good writer and there is a lot to like.
To see actual bonobos:
Great Ape Trust (The real-life research facility that was the inspiration for this book.)
Lola Ya Bonobo (World’s only bonobo sanctuary. Rescues orphaned bonobos and releases them into the wild.)