Sara Gruen has a talent for writing animals. In her bestseller Water For Elephants and her newest work, Ape House, she conveys the titular creatures’ keen intelligence and distinct personalities in a way that asks readers to reexamine their views of other species. It’s unfortunate that her talent doesn’t extend to writing humans. In Water For Elephants, her poorly developed characters were more forgivable, as the rich setting of an ailing Depression-era circus overshadowed them. Conversely, Ape House’s jumbled plot makes Gruen’s weaknesses more pronounced.
The book primarily follows journalist John Thigpen and Isabel Duncan, a researcher at the Great Ape Language Lab. On the same day Thigpen interviews Duncan on her work teaching bonobos American Sign Language, the lab is blown up, and Duncan is severely injured. When an eco-terrorist group claims responsibility, the six highly sexually active bonobos are quickly sold to a pornographer, who makes them the stars of a new reality TV show.
The protagonists seem primarily defined by their awful antagonists. Where Duncan loves the apes like family, another researcher is motivated solely by greed, tortures apes in the name of science, and also cheats on his fiancée. Thigpen’s nemesis is a ruthlessly competitive coworker who shuts him out of stories and is willing to lie about being Duncan’s sister to get into her hospital room and snap a picture of her ravaged face. Occasionally, it seems like depth might shine through, most notably in a section on the dysfunctional family that won’t be coming to visit Duncan in the hospital. But the book quickly moves on, and never returns.
Gruen’s narrative ranges too far afield to bring any specific ideas home. She wants to make big points about the exploitation of animals in the name of science and entertainment, and a section where Duncan visits a research lab where horrific experiments are being done on chimpanzees is particularly jarring. But she also uses Thigpen to bemoan the state of journalism, and his wife, a failed novelist trying to get a television series made, to critique both the publishing industry and Hollywood. The wife’s plotline is insufferable, especially since the payoff comes when she miraculously gets her book published, with no explanation offered. Other tangential plots include Thigpen discovering a pizza place near his hotel is actually a meth lab, and fearing that a green-haired vegan might be the result of a drunken one-night stand he had as a college freshman. The book is packed with so much extraneous material that even the beautifully executed scenes involving the apes can’t save it.