Sara Gruen is the author of Riding Lessons (2004), Flying Changes (2005), and Water for Elephants ( Sept/Oct 2006), all of which explore the complex relationships between people and animals. In her highly anticipated fourth novel, a family of bonobo apes skyrockets to superstardom with its own reality TV series.
The Story: Dr. Isabel Duncan is a dedicated scientist working for the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas. Her beloved research subjects are six bonobo apes--Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena--who are able to communicate with humans using American Sign Language. When the laboratory is bombed by the radical Earth Liberation League, Isabel is gravely injured and the bonobos are sold to an infamous porn producer. To Isabel's horror, the producer sets the bonobos up as stars of a reality TV show called Ape House, which enjoys instantaneous success because of the apes' insatiable sexual appetites.
Spiegel & Grau. 320 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780385523219
Dallas Morning News
"[H]ad me instantly enraptured. ... I've never seen an author more gracefully navigate the tightrope above the minefield topics of animal rights, evolution, serious vs. tabloid journalism and more." Joy Tipping
"Sara Gruen's entertaining, enlightening new novel will certainly leave you thinking [that people should be more like animals]. ... She's demonstrated before her intuitiveness with animals with Rosie the elephant from her first book, and the depiction of the bonobos is the best thing about this novel, even with its intriguing storyline and suspenseful twists." Amy Canfield
"The new work, while fun, is a good deal less nuanced [than Like Water for Elephants]. ... There are emotional and ethical issues aplenty in the set-up, and the weakness of Ape House is that Gruen makes the choice to take the reader along a myriad of surface paths instead of more deeply exploring a select few." Robin Vidimos
"Scenes involving the bonobos are winsome without being sappy, and the reader comes to share Isabel's concern for the animals. Indeed, the individuality of each bonobo makes the flatness of some of the human relationships all the more disappointing." Alison Lobron
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[W]hile her novel is a noble attempt to expose readers to a world they most likely will never experience, it is just those two emotions--sincerity and passion--that fail to translate to the page. ... It is a shame that Gruen was unable to make us love the apes as much as she so clearly does." Kim Schmidt
"Particularly in a book inspired by the miracle of language, it's disappointing to see such reliance on cliches, as though the novel drove to the Costco Phrase Store and loaded up with off-the-shelf words. ... The 800-pound gorilla in the room is why someone at Gruen's new publishing house didn't give her the benefit of a good edit." Ron Charles
Overall, critics considered Ape House a dissatisfying follow-up to Water for Elephants. With its evocative Depression-era setting and unforgettable characters, Water continues to enthrall legions of fans. Unfortunately, some reviewers found Ape House's intriguing premise overshadowed by poor editing, a "silly story," and "trite characters" (Washington Post). Others felt that Gruen glossed over key issues. A few did enjoy Ape House, and lauded Gruen's "knack ... for creating distinctive animal characters" (Boston Globe). The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines inspired Ape House, and the novel clearly shows Gruen's fascination with, and respect for, bonobo apes. For readers interested in the subject, and with slightly altered expectations, the novel might be worth a peek. Sadly, though, general readers should look elsewhere.