Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ape House Cements My Faith in Sara Gruen

I read Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants just after it was released in trade paperback in 2007; it was one of the books I read while on a vacation in Texas that year. My best friend had moved there with her husband, and we were in desperate need of hanging out time. My mom knew this, and surprised me with plane tickets to go visit for a week. As it's been since 2007, I've forgotten many details of the book; now I only know that I loved it. I couldn't be more excited about the movie coming to theaters in April.

When Gruen's new novel Ape House was released last year, I was equally excited about reading it. Although it created a lot of buzz, many reviews I read were less than glowing. Conversely, author Joshilyn Jackson (who I adore) touted the book as an excellent read on her blog Faster Than Kudzu. As I absolutely trust her reading advice, I was more determined than ever to get my hands on Ape House.

Of course, Gruen did not disappoint. While Ape House was a very different novel than Water for Elephants -- in pretty much every way, except for the animal subject matter -- it was just as good to me.  

Ape House is the story of bonobos, a great ape in the chimpanzee family. Isabel Duncan runs a bonobo language laboratory at a university where language acquisition in the species is being studied. The great apes have learned American Sign Language, and have become adept at communicating with their human caretakers. After an incident at the lab, the bonobos are sold to a private owner. When they reappear, both Isabel and journalist John Thigpen begin plotting their rescue. Gruen splits the novel into two stories -- Isabel's and John's. She tells both storylines with skill, pulling the reader in for more. Gruen also introduces well-drawn villains in the story; the bonobos new owner is especially evil, yet characterized well.

I found myself researching actual bonobos during and after reading about their fictional counterparts in Ape House. It is a sign of a good novel when the reader is left with a curiosity for more. One thing that many reviewers seemed to detest was the sexual content relating to the bonobos. In my opinion, Animal Planet shows similar content on a daily basis.

Also, rather than glorifying the bonobos' interactions with one another -- as some reviews stated -- Gruen seemed to dismay at the thought of humans' exploiting any animal behavior. This is evidenced in the storyline. I also didn't find the plot all that far-fetched; worse has definitely been seen on MTV and on the many other reality shows that abound nowadays. And animals are already the subject of reality-style shows; think Meerkat Manor and Animal Planet's Growing Up... series.

All in all, I was just as pleased with Ape House as I expected to be. Gruen has written another great novel, and I look forward to her next book. She also has a list of Critters in Need on her website, animal foundations that help bonobos, horses, and other animals.

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