I must confess that I hadnít read Gruenís first novel, so with much anticipation I made ready to dive into her exotic follow-up tale. As her story unfurled in a chaotic mix of animal cruelty and terrorism, I was left a bit disappointed by the taleís sad sense of desperation. I suspect Gruen was under a lot of pressure from her editors to complete something quickly in order to cash in on the movie release of
Water for Elephants, due out early next year.
Dr. Isabel Duncan works as bonobo communicator at the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City. As the story begins, she
is visited by John Thigpen, a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer. John is at once struck by the apes' incredible capacity to respond to humans though ASL (American Sign Language). John also notices how much the lovely Isobel is committed to the bonobosí care and well-being.
John hadnít expected Isabel to be physical with the apes. She tells him that, over the years, ďtheyíve become more human and Iíve become more bonobo.Ē John leaves, vowing to write a good story, the memories of his meeting with Isobel and the bonobos fresh in his mind. Meanwhile, the
lab is unexpectedly bombed. There's an explosion, then shadowy figures in black clothes and balaclavas swarm in and spread out, remaining strangely and frighteningly silent.
Only then does Isobel understand what has happened to her as she lies in hospital with concussion and a broken jaw, as helpless as the apes she has purportedly "imprisoned." Isobelís fiancť, Dr. Peter Benton tells her that a group of animal rights extremists claim to have
"liberated" the apes. In actuality, the apes have been let loose, their poor, frail, unconscious bodies falling into the night as they end up becoming the property of a reality TV pornographer who intends to incorporate their behavior into his oeuvre.
Gruenís story sweeps the reader along, but a lack of imagination quickly translates into an exercise in predictability. The plot is mostly telegraphed, and the insertion of
a subplot involving Russian prostitutes and an exploding methamphetamine lab is as desperate as it is silly. The characters are one-dimensional stereotypes and not that engaging. Even Amanda, Johnís glamorous girlfriend and a struggling writer, comes across as irritating as she reels from the near-simultaneous loss of both her book contract and her agent.
The author's prose is beautiful and polished, and she details with great passion the apes' demonstrative nature, their bonding, and how humans are fascinated and discomfited in equal parts by bonobo sexuality. But the surrounding media circus and the accompanying parasitic publicity junkies all become a bit too much. In the end, Ape House is ultimately short-lived, and I found it hard to take anything in this work seriously.