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Just A Bunch of Monkey Business
on August 31, 2010
Having loved Water for Elephants, I've been anxiously awaiting Sara Gruen's new book, Ape House, all year. Like Sara, I'm an animal lover and a huge advocate for them, so I appreciate her as an author. Unfortunately, I think that those who also embraced Water for Elephants, like me, will be sorely disappointed with Ape House. While it does present an interesting view on animal rights, and I think that Gruen was indeed expressing a lot of her personal and political opinions here which is fine, it lacks the magic and whimsy we experienced with her last book, and which created that strong connection with her characters and readers.
Ape House spends the first 100 pages introducing us to two couples. There's Isabel, an ape researcher in Kansas whose spent years of her life studying a group of Bonobos (small chimps). She is engaged to Peter, another researcher, but their relationship is out of balance after Peter sleeps with one of the interns. Peter is very flat in that we only see him when he's either on the phone with Isabel or being kicked out of her apartment. We don't really get to know him as a person, and we are only "told" about his actions.
Then, there's John Thigpen, a newspaper reporter who has just met the apes and interviewed Isabel. He's married to Amanda, who is the most interesting character out of all of them in the beginning of the book. She's a failing novelist whose written one book that didn't do very well. She's gotten over 100 rejections on her second book. She's also hot and turns all the men's heads. Like one of the men who are always checking her out, I was enamored by her story and wondered if the writer plot line was Gruen herself. Notice the apes don't play a very important part until much later.
The ape lab, which is also their comfy home, gets blown up by some extreme animal rights activists. The apes escape and become misplaced, while Isabel is also badly hurt, requiring reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile, John is reassigned to another story, while his arch-nemesis, a female reporter named Cat, steals the ape story out from under him. We discover the apes are sold to a porn producer to be used in a reality TV show called Ape House. Sounds odd? Indeed it is. And only gets worse.
The pace of the novel moves very fast, with our two couples individually moving all over the place. Amanda moves to L.A. to work with another writer on a sitcom. John is wrapped up in his new assignment (not by choice). Isabel is glued to the TV watching the apes, like everyone else in America. And who knows where Peter is! Eventually John relocates to L.A. to be closer to Amanda and takes a job with a tabloid that reassigns him to the ape story, which has since become the center of attention everywhere due to the apes nonstop sexual antics right on television, that while natural to them to touch and mate with each other, is seen as embarrassing (or enticing) by the show's viewers.
With the apes' misplacement and new location being treated as top secret, and Isabel and John's determination to find them, the novel almost has a Dan Brown-esque feel to it as the two race to find the apes or uncover the story. It's too bad one of the apes wasn't harboring some secret that could unlock the mystery of the ages. At the end of the day, they are just apes falling asleep in a house where they are being used for cheap entertainment, and the reader might find themselves falling asleep too.
Gruen obviously has a strong opinion about realty TV, and I have to say I agree with her. Half the stuff we subject ourselves to in our living room is stupid and lacking quality, and yet we remain glued to our seats each week and the ratings soar. What does this say about us? Porn also plays a bit part in the subject matter, which almost makes you feel uncomfortable, but I think that was Gruen's intention, from the apes touching each other right down to a stripper in a hotel that helps John get the story. The best part of the political agenda in all of the various groups of picketers outside the ape house, half of whom really have no concrete reason to be there including the "Eastborough" Baptist Church who are against the apes because they touch each other which makes them bisexual!
There are various other laughs which give the story some flavor - Amanda's mom organizing the couple's sex toys or John's time spent in a cheap hotel while covering the story and "stranger than fiction" stuff happening all around him including a meth lab explosion. Then, there are parts that aren't there but you wish they were. Isabel practically has a new identity after her surgeries, and you wanted her to go undercover while trying to gain information about the apes, and while she does try to conceal her identity, what you really want to happen just never evolves.
I hate to bring up Water for Elephants again, but in that book while there was a love story in the center ring, it always came back to the elephant which we loved and felt compassion for. Here, there's so much going on that it's hard to connect with any one character. And the apes are locked away. Gruen can definitely write animals and make them interesting, the parts about what the apes are doing is fun and humorous, but it's hard to connect with them since they are indeed just characters on a TV show. But there's just a bit too much political agenda here which succeeds at making you uncomfortable, bored, or both. The characters display flavor at times, but it just gets drowned out as the story pushes forward but really isn't going anywhere.
In the notes, Gruen discusses her own meeting with bonobos that she had read about. She says the ASL conversations in the book amongst the apes all really happened. I think like any fascinating animal, Gruen was touched and determined to put them in a book. Why not? Apes are unique and their similarities to us are amazing. But sadly, the apes aren't the center of attention here and the animal-writing is what we want from Gruen in the end. Instead, we are treated to characters who don't do what we want them to, or they are just bland. And the scenes are pieced together with political banter. I still love Sara as an author and as a person. I'll still suggest 'Elephants to everyone I know whose looking for a great read, but Ape House is nothing but a bunch of monkey business.