Sara Gruen describes her first visit to the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines as "astonishing -- to this day I cannot think about it without getting goose bumps." Inspired, she spent the better part of two years researching bonobos and other apes at the research facility, and the result is her fifth novel, "Ape House."
In a promotional video for the Great Ape Trust, Gruen's sincerity and passion for these newfound friends are evident. Her experience there was, as she called it, "life-changing." And while her novel is a noble attempt to expose readers to a world they most likely will never experience, it is just those two emotions -- sincerity and passion -- that fail to translate to the page.
"Ape House" opens with John Thigpen, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, visiting the Great Ape Language Lab to interview scientist Isabel Duncan about her work teaching bonobos to communicate via American Sign Language. Shortly after his visit, an explosion rocks the lab, and Isabel is not only severely injured, but also is separated from her beloved apes. When she awakes in the hospital, she sees television footage of them clinging to trees outside the ruined lab and being shot at with tranquilizer guns. A news conference held by the university soon follows and the attack is blamed on the Earth Liberation League. To keep the apes and members of the campus community safe, the university has "transported" the apes to another location.
What she, and others, will come to learn is that the university has sold the apes to an infamous porn producer who uses the apes to produce "Ape House," a reality TV show featuring the bonobos. The show becomes somewhat of a national addiction as people become mesmerized by the apes. Viewers watch the apes watch movies together, or order junk food and magazines by using a touchpad screen. But it is the apes' natural proclivity for frequent sex that sends ratings through the roof.
After the explosion, Isabel retreats from the world, worried only about her apes' safety. She reaches out slowly to a select few people whom she enlists in her effort to rescue the animals. Thigpen is among those who help Isabel with her plan. Since the explosion, he has left his prestigious job at the Inquirer and is now working for a tabloid newspaper in Los Angeles, specifically covering "Ape House." The two, plus a small cast of others, work together to expose the truth behind the apes' sale.
Gruen is best known for her novel "Water for Elephants," which made the New York Times bestseller list and is now being made into a film starring Reese Witherspoon. "Water for Elephants" proved that Gruen is a hell of a writer. Sadly, the elements that made that novel such a literary success are missing in "Ape House": robust, complex characters who inhabit a stunning narrative landscape. It is a shame that Gruen was unable to make us love the apes as much as she so clearly does.
Kim Schmidt has written reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Publishers Weekly. She lives in Illinois.