Ape House is the story of six bonobos and the humans who take care of them. In her author’s note, Sara Gruen reveals that the book is based on her visit to a Great Ape lab which “astonished” and “changed” her.
This novel could have been a serious discussion of the philosophy and ethics behind the capture and training of great apes. And there are some indications through the book of a deeper thought process – for example in its analysis of the sheer vulgarity of pop culture, the possibilities opened up by human and ape communication and particularly the scenes presented inside the Ape house which are both touching and amazing to the reader. But sadly, Gruen has merely showed the presence of deeper issues here. The novel is much more of a thriller with intricate plot twists and jam packed action.
Isabel Duncan is the scientist working with the bonobos, communicating with them in American Sign Language (ASL). She loves the apes and thinks of them as family. To meet Isabel and to get a look at the apes, comes confused reporter, John Thigpen. Like most of Gruen’s readers, Thigpen has had no contact with apes before this and his awe, fear and complete unpreparedness for the sheer humanness of the great apes - Bonzi, Mbongo, Sam, Makena, Jelani, and the baby, Lola, are well documented by Gruen.
The book picks up pace soon after, leaving the reader little or no time to be contemplative. The lab is blown up, Isabel is seriously injured and one of the animal activist groups claims responsibility for the attack. The apes are bundled off campus and no one knows where they are until they appear on TV in a reality show.
Isabel is not about to give up on her family though and with the help of Thigpen and a host of secondary characters, manages to win the apes a home again with her. A rather bald plot summary, but if you take away the sudden coincidences, the galloping action and much of the melodrama, this about sums it up.
Personally, I would have been happier to read more of the apes and less of the humans. Particularly since the main characters, Isabel and John, are so uninteresting and lack depth. Isabel only becomes real when she is shown interacting with the apes, at other times, she is weak, slow to reason out and easily spooked and often too upset to act. Similarly John Thigpen is not much of an investigative reporter, and is, for most of the novel, busy being overwhelmed by his relationship with his wife and her desire to have a baby.
Not even the villain of the piece gets the distinction of being a strong character. The biggest mystery in the book is how no one, including Isabel, did even the most basic research on his past! And there is not much role for him in such an overcrowded cast of characters and he seems more of a walk on character who conveniently gets caught near the end of the novel so that all loose ends are neatly tied up. Convenient, yes - but convincing, not at all.
The redeeming character in the human cast is Celia, a colorful lab intern originally suspected of the crime, and her group of eclectic, eccentric friends who actually unravel the true story behind the explosion with some electronic wizardry, otherwise known as hacking. The supposedly minor group of characters is more interesting and action oriented than the main characters who mostly seem to be lost in the woods.
Read Ape House for its tantalizing and enthralling glimpses into the life of the great apes. Everything – and everyone else - is just ordinary.