Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships—but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.
Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn’t understand people, but animals she gets—especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she’s ever felt among humans . . . until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what’s really going on inside.
When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and “liberating” the apes, John’s human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he’ll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggest—and unlikeliest—phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda.
Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen’s place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before.
Review From Publishers Weekly
Gruen enjoys minimal luck in trying to recapture the magic of her enormously successful Water for Elephants in this clumsy outing that begins with the bombing of the Great Ape Language Lab, a university research center dedicated to the study of the communicative behavior of bonobo apes. The blast, which terrorizes the apes and severely injures scientist Isabel Duncan, occurs one day after Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen visits the lab and speaks to the bonobos, who answer his questions in sign language. After a series of personal setbacks, Thigpen pursues the story of the apes and the explosions for a Los Angeles tabloid, encountering green-haired vegan protesters and taking in a burned-out meth lab’s guard dog. Meanwhile, as Isabel recovers from her injuries, the bonobos are sold and moved to New Mexico, where they become a media sensation as the stars of a reality TV show. Unfortunately, the best characters in this overwrought novel don’t have the power of speech, and while Thigpen is mildly amusing, Isabel is mostly inert. In Elephants, Gruen used the human-animal connection to conjure bigger themes; this is essentially an overblown story about people and animals, with explosions added for effect.