Animals aping humans or vice versa?
Sara Gruen has an affinity with animals as she deftly established with her previous books, "Riding Lessons," "Flying Changes" and the bestselling "Water for Elephants," published by small press Algonquin out of North Carolina, which had blockbuster sales with its paperback release.
It seems to me anyone with this kind of sensitivity to creatures-not-human should also have an openness and understanding of unspoken emotion, gesture and subtext. And in this realm her latest book does not disappoint.
The book focuses on a group of bonobo apes and the unlikely mix of people they draw together as the research facility in which the apes are housed is bombed.
The bonobos (as with real bonobos in a similar setting at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Language Research Center at Georgia State University) are able to communicate desires and emotions via sign language.
This communication forms a family bond between the humans and apes, particularly with Isabel Duncan, the project's lead researcher. The apes are a crew of personalities that you come to appreciate as unique, albeit flat, characters.
If I didn't sympathize with them, I sympathized with those in the book who loved the apes and struggled to pull them out of an awful situation into a respectful place.
After the bombers, the apes are sold to newspaper-magnate-turned-entrepreneur Ken Faulks, who sets them up as stars of their own reality TV show. The premise might seem uneventful -- except that bonobos like to have sex. They like to have a lot of sex, and so a kind of reality animal porn is supposed to be the draw of the program "Ape House."
The apes themselves request the furnishings of the house and via a computer can order in a variety of items. Cheeseburgers and fruit and blankets and M&Ms abound with a canned laugh track and cheesy sound effects dubbed in. Cameras record the apes every move 24 hours a day.
The human characters are the ones who lured me in and kept me turning pages. Ms. Gruen's ear for dialogue and nuance is fantastic, particularly between John Thigpen, the newspaper reporter who pitches an ape story, and his wife, Amanda, a novelist-turned-TV scriptwriter.
Both are surprising characters who build slowly with a complexity that makes me wonder what Ms. Gruen could do with a story that didn't have all these animals in it.
What is fascinating here is her examination of what it means to nurture, what it means to be a family and what it means to communicate within those boundaries and how those interactions occur in apes and humans.
Researcher Isabel Duncan's family of apes drives her forward to save them, while her fiance, Peter, seems more like a business partner than a lover.
Isabel's assistant Celia finds her tribe in a group of errant, activist hackers.
As Amanda and John negotiate the decision to have children themselves, an ape baby is born. There are attractions across relationships. John lusting after Isabel, Amanda's writing partner Sean hitting on her at a party. Peter's affair and Celia's complicated friendships with nearly all the characters.
A reader is left to ask: How different is this group of people from the group of apes on the TV show?
Family, betrayal, love, lust, and friendship are turned over for inspection in "Ape House" where Ms. Gruen's characters, human and ape, search for the place where they belong.
First Published August 29, 2010 12:00 am