Sara Gruen,
Ape House
(Spiegel & Grau, 2010)

Water for Elephants was a magical read. That book by Sara Gruen had the capacity to bring together humans, animals and history and transport the reader into an unfamiliar world. Obviously, I'm going to compare every elephant and circus book to Water, and I'm pretty sure most will fall short. Sadly, I'm going to have to compare Gruen's own Ape House to Water as well and come to the same verdict.

What happened here? Well, to start with, the book's titled Ape House but we don't get to the apes for 100 pages. Our introduction is to the human characters: of the four, the one least influencing the apes is the most interesting; however, I suspect many writing coaches would consider Amanda a darling that Gruen probably should have killed in favor of the story.

When we finally get to the apes, we learn that animal rights activists have bombed their research facility. The apes are running free. Unfortunately, they are captured and sold to television producers who decide to make a reality TV show about their activities. Doing what's natural to the animals becomes pornography to the prurient-oriented viewers.

The primary quartet of human characters fall short of their potential. Isabel, the ape researcher, is badly damaged by the bomb blast and is forced to undergo extensive plastic surgery. A fascinating storyline about character identity is sacrificed so we can see how Amanda is attractive to men. John, the ape reporter and Amanda's husband, spends his time divided between trying to follow the apes' story and hopefully recover them and staking his territory with his overly attractive wife. Peter, the man who dumped Isabel, is about as unnecessary as Amanda.

The story does pick up as John and Isabel desperately try to find the apes. There are a lot of fascinating character studies straight from the pages of the papers. But do we have to have the Eastborough Baptist Church picketing the apes because they are touching each other and, thus, potentially bisexual?

In contrast to the humans, the apes come off as the more compassionate and evolved species. Their conversations and plight are amusing and touching. The small interactions with the apes are the portions of the story that had me riveted to the page while the remainder of the story left me hurrying to return to the animals.

Now, in conclusion, I'm going to mention the fictional work that I consider the Water for Elephants of the ape world. It's Captivity by Debbie Wesselmann. This is the story of a South Carolina ape research institute with strong human and ape characters.

book review by
Becky Kyle

23 July 2011

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