Follow-up novels to hugely successful ones always come with plenty of pressure and expectations. Sara Gruen's Ape House came with such anticipation after Water for Elephants. Mari-Beth Slade calmly and thoughtfully appraised it for Critics at Large.
Her first two books, Riding Lessons (2004) and Flying Changes (2005), had relatively low profiles; while Water for Elephants (2006) was such a popular success that it was recently made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Like all of Gruen’s books, Ape House continues to educate us about animals’ capacity for emotion. While Water for Elephants is a historical novel, Ape House has a decidedly modern plot with blatant references to mainstream pornography, gaudy reality television, and email hacking. Ape House is not nearly as elegantly written as Water for Elephants, but what it lacks in elegance it makes up for in exhilaration.
Here is a skeleton of the plot, because it’s so outlandish that nothing will make sense unless you know the premise. A primate language laboratory containing six bonobos is bombed, sending the lead scientist (Isabel Duncan) into the trauma ward and the bonobos into the hands of a porn producer, who locks them in a house with omnipresent cameras and broadcasts them on cable television. The protagonist (John Thigpen) is a reporter covering the story whilst his own world explodes around him.
|Author Sara Gruen|
If we were back in Grade 10 English class and had to choose a one-word theme for this book, it would be Family – the universal need for family, the impact family has on shaping our lives, and the different forms that family can take. In Isabel’s first interview with John, she shamefacedly admits that the desire to understand her family inspired her to major in behavioral psychology. When we learn that Isabel’s family consists of a neglectful prostitute mother who sent the children to the basement when she had visitors, it’s no wonder that Isabel now considers the bonobos her real family. When’s John’s wife, Amanda, gets the maternal urge, he suggests she pacify it with a pet. Not only does he think he already has a teenage child from a long-ago affair, but he assumes the presence of his over-bearing mother-in-law would be heightened with the birth of a grandchild. Unlike the more obvious components of Ape House, deciphering Gruen’s message on family requires work on the part of the reader, but the work is most welcome and rewarding.
We can learn a lot from the bonobos. This is clear from the way their kind actions are juxtaposed next to the moral deformities of some humans. They know how to create and protect a family; they know how to make love, not war; they are in tune with themselves and their environment in a way that the garish elements of our culture make it difficult to be. Ape House illustrates that while Homo sapiens appear to have gone bananas, bonobos are calmly eating theirs.
-originally published on June 20, 2011 in Critics at Large.