Ape House by Sara Gruen was a book I expected to fit in the genre of literary fiction but the constant telling rather than showing made me feel this was made for mass-market, commercial appeal. Even the plot which involves stereotypically-painted, vegan-branded protesters taking vigilante action to free bonobos involved in a language lab under the misapprehension that they are being mistreated by the university is not very original and the journalist/writer couple do not deliver on the empathy stakes. The fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Ape House was inspired by Sara Gruen’s visit to the non-fictional Great Ape Trust in Iowa and as many reviews say, this fiction would have been better off as a personal memoir reflecting on her own experiences as it falls flat on research. I cannot help but agree.
There are many narrative threads in the story: the main premise involves a language lab which houses six bonobos that can communicate using American Sign Language and scientist Isabel Duncan who is injured during the forceful “rescue” of the bonobos who end up being used in a reality television show produced by a porn mogul; another story explores the trials of reporter John Thigpen and his wife, Amelia as they navigate their marriage while dealing with the ramifications of free citizen journalism and book manuscript rejections culminating in a move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The book includes a vile, cheating boyfriend who isn’t who he paints himself to be, an unexpected student friend who ends up being Kevin’s source to break a factual story in a tabloid and thwart a rival reporter at his former job, and a suspected paternity case stemming from a university prank gone wrong.
It’s just too many preposterous things at once and while you can connect the dots, I didn’t find it impressive. Isabel becoming close to Celia was odd and did not sit right with me given what happened after the new year party although I suppose she had no-one else being more bonobo than human. The way Celia bailed her boyfriend out of jail and manipulated Kevin was also unpalatable. Isabel seemed like a doormat but I suppose she was a victim rather than a protagonist in the story. While I found Kevin fairly sympathetic, the way he found the most damning evidence isn’t in the least credible and I found his desire to harp on Amelia’s sexiness rather unnecessary. On the face of it, I suppose apart from Celia’s character, all human characters were either boring or overtly stereotyped. Ape House may be a fun read but it lacks substance.