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177 of 193 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, well-written, but not quite there., August 25, 2010
This review is from: Ape House: A Novel (Hardcover)
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
It is going to be difficult to review this novel without spoilers, but I am going to do my level best.

From the cover, it should be clear that this is a novel about primate research. If you have ever visited a chimp lab or research center, you know that most of them are not quite as utopian as the Great Ape Language Lab, where Isabel works with the bonobos. When John Thigpen interviews her, he is as enchanted by her as he is by the communicative apes. When a horrific occurrence changes everything, he is her journalistic champion as she seeks to right the wrongs she unwittingly encouraged.

Let's talk about what works.

There is no easy way to deal with material as potentially heartbreaking as the mistreatment of animals, especially intelligent animals. Gruen hands over the story to characters who are determined to do something about the cruelty. The reader suffers over the apes, but knows someone is working on the problem--eventually hundreds of people are working on it, and it gives a glimmer of hope in what could be an unbearably sad story. The animals in Water for Elephants were not so protected; it was a completely different time in America, and the reader will find herself both cursing and cheering the advent of technology as it plays such a role in the story (both bad and good).

Gruen can really write animals. They are characters in her novels. And though they are adorable and hapless, the apes are not quite as heartrending as Rosie, the elephant in the rundown circus, because the apes have language-they can sign and type, and broadcast their desires and distress. Rosie had only her swaying, expressive silence. This is a relief, because once the reader sees where this novel is going, she might be tempted to abandon a story about the abuse of the power we hold over animals.

Which leads me to what didn't work. I had the basic who-was-behind-what aspects of the plot figured out far too early, in fact almost immediately, so most of book was devoid of revelations for me. But my main objection was how squarely placed the book was in a familiar landscape; descriptions of being downsized, economically pinched, the new realities of publishing, these were spelled out in great detail. Well done, but not exactly giving me much of a break from a world I already live in. Water for Elephants offered escape to a different time, the Depression, and a squalid but exotic world of the circus. The Ape House is planted smack in the middle of the here and now.

The humor was much stronger than I expected. As in Water for Elephants, a straight guy intersects with an subculture he didn't really even know existed; but while Jacob was enchanted by the fading glamor and small dignities of the circus, John's intersection (courtesy of a bad motel) with the world of strippers, drugs and porn kings has none of that same dignity, though plenty of humor. Yes, it IS really funny to read, but it's almost slapstick. "Oh, guess what he's going to step in NOW!" A bit too broad. But again, really, really funny in places.

Did I like the book? Yes. Did I love it? Sadly, no. My guess is that most readers of Water for Elephants will still enjoy this book. And I did, I laughed out loud during the funny parts (well, most of them) and I suffered anxiously through the sad parts. But the power of a fairy tale ending is that it comes at the end of a gruesome tale. This story is not all that horrific, considering where it could have gone. This book, like the fate of the primates, almost skates away from what could have been, as if the author loved the apes and their people so much that she couldn't subject them to the kind of realism that would have made the book truly powerful.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 26, 2010 9:23:17 AM PDT
Well executed review that has left me thinking I can wait for the tradecover. Thank-you.

Posted on Aug 27, 2010 5:09:17 AM PDT
I want to thank the reviewer for taking the time to comment as fully as she did. I am an avid fan of Water for Elephants and did not like Gruen's other two books I read about horses. They were okay but not fantastic as Elephants. I'm pretty sure, after reading the review, that I will get this book. I have a hard time with animal cruelties but have a feeling that Gruen evens things out, as she did in Elephants. Thank you reviewer!

Posted on Aug 30, 2010 10:52:03 AM PDT
C says:
I'm glad that you seemed to enjoy the book - but I feel like we read two completely different versions! I just received an advanced copy of this last month, and I hated nearly everything about the novel. The apes were great characters - but they were simply missing from 95% of the book.

I wish Amazon would let non-Vine members throw up reviews a little bit sooner so there'd be a broader commentary on what's coming out. I'm not saying it's not a fair review. I do wonder if I would have felt differently had I read Water for Elephants.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 30, 2010 6:00:24 PM PDT
Pasiphae says:
Chris, I do remember having a moment when I said, "Hey, whatever happened to the apes?" But they showed up right afterwards. And I might be prejudiced towards liking the book because I loved Water for Elephants. I don't know. I do know that Sara Gruen's readers are certainly thoughtful people, based on the comments on this review.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2010 5:27:52 AM PDT
I think Karen's review is fair. She obviously liked the book a bit more than I did. Chris- I agree with you. I wanted more monkey business, but Gruen just didn't give it to us. That would have been okay had the characters at least been a tad bit more interesting. I loved Amanda in the beginning, but she gets written off to L.A. I wanted to learn more about the bad guy, Peter, but he was always just on the phone or being kicked out. And so much political stuff going on here with porn and picketers! I really wanted to like this book, but it indeed falls short. Oh well...I still love Gruen for giving us Water for Elephants, on of my all time favs!

Posted on Sep 5, 2010 8:37:56 AM PDT
Thank you for this balanced review. I think I'll wait for the paperback version.
btw - have you read "Captivity" by Debbie Lee Wesselmann? It was published a few years ago, and got a starred review from Publishers Weekly and others. It is very similar in theme, dealing with the interactions between chimpanzees in a sanctuary and humans. I thought it was very well written.

I'm sorry that Ape House wasn't quite up to expectations, but your review made me curious to go check out Water for Elephants, which I had previously overlooked. Thanks.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 5, 2010 9:56:55 AM PDT
I, too, read and loved "Captivity" by Debbie Lee Wesselmann . . . And while I truly enjoyed "Water For Elephants," the reviews of "Ape House" seem luke warm at best. I think I'll skip it.

Posted on Sep 7, 2010 5:53:58 AM PDT
R. Kyle says:
Well stated review, Karen. I really enjoyed Debbie Wesselmann's "Captivity" much more than this book. I think the research done by Ms. Wesselmann was much deeper.

Posted on Sep 7, 2010 1:29:45 PM PDT
Erika Borsos says:
Having read & reviewed "Captivity" by Debbie Lee Wesselmann your excellent review of this book has piqued my interest. Both books have a similar theme & would love to compare the two. Never read "Water for Elephants" but it is on my "to do" list.

Posted on Sep 21, 2010 11:16:25 PM PDT
Pasiphae says:
Wow, after reading these glowing comments about Captivity, I've put it on my wish list...but I'm internally cringing at the thought of reading a deeply engaging book about primate research and captivity. Just such a sad subject. But thank you all!
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