The Ape House by Sara Gruen

DATE FINISHED: April 8th, 2011


SYNOPSIS: Isabel has been working with a group of Bonobo chimpanzees on a pioneering language acquisition project (the chimps have learned to communicate using sign language).  Shortly after the lab is blown up (apparently by animal rights activists), the chimps first disappear then become stars of their own reality TV show.  Journalist John who met the chimps the day before the explosion is as determined as Isabel to find out the truth of what happened but regardless of the truth, Isabel is equally determined to rescue the stolen chimps.

THOUGHTS: I’ve read several real-life accounts of work with chimps & language acquisition, so I was drawn to this book for that reason.  Given that it is a novel, it should not have surprised me that it didn’t tell me anything new about the subject, and given that it was a novel, I actually found the relation of those facts (and opinions) slightly heavy-handed.  On the whole, I found the story quite blandly written with little style or personality.  The characters are loaded with ‘character’ but hard to care about, and the so-called mystery of what happened to the apes was not especially mysterious.  People who don’t have any background knowledge in the subject area might find the conversations with the chimps interesting, otherwise, there is not too much to recommend about this distinctly average, occasionally preachy novel.

FOLLOWING ON: ‘Jennie’ by Douglas Preston is a novel about a signing chimp being raised within a family (also based on factual accounts).  It is far more successful as a novel than ‘The Ape House’ as it does not try to integrate the facts into some kind of ‘action/mystery’ storyline; it is just a family drama.  If you want to find out about the family of apes depicted in ‘The Ape House’, the ape re-named Bonzi for this novel is the subject of ‘Kanzi: the Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind’ by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh; and if you are interested in the subject in general, ‘Next of Kin’ by Roger Fouts is another good first-hand account of living & working with signing apes. ‘Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human’ by Elizabeth Hess is also worth seeking out.


One response to “The Ape House by Sara Gruen

  1. Ellie April 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    This is the second disappointing review I’ve seen… I guess it’s hard to top Water For Elephants but I’d been looking forwrad to this one.

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