BOOKS: The Ape House

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2011:
The Ape House by Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau
(c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2010.
336 pages, hardcover. $26.00.
Water for the Elephants author Sara Gruen and her new
publisher, the Spiegel & Grau imprint at Random House, may have
rushed The Ape House into print to have it in stores coinciding with
the April 22, 2011 release of the film version of Water for the
Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon.

Water for the Elephants, a 2006 best-seller, was widely
praised. The Ape House has by contrast been panned by many critics
who usually favor animal stories, mostly because Gruen packs the
story with too many characters to keep track of, some serving
little evident purpose. Characters with major plot roles are left
underdeveloped; some minor characters are more fully presented and
memorable. The plot and sub-plots become twisted in a coil of
Heroine Isabel Duncan is a scientist who is more at home
among the bonobos she studies at a Kansas university research lab
than among most humans. The lab is loosely modeled after the Great
Ape Trust, of Des Moines, Iowa, but Duncan does not appear to be
modeled after Great Ape Trust founder Sue Savage Rumbaugh.
A mysterious ex-plosion severely injures Duncan and shatters
her lab. The freed apes somehow end up on a reality TV show. To
save her bonobos from junk TV, Duncan connects with a married
investigative reporter named John. John lost his job at a
Philadel-phia newspaper, but was hired by a Los Angeles tabloid to
pursue Duncan’s story. John also hopes the Los Angeles job will
bring him closer to his wife Amanda, who hopes to break into the
film industry.
Police question animal rights activists about the lab
explosion but find nothing linking them to it. Their primarily
suspect, Celia, is a 19-year-old vegetarian cage cleaner who shares
Duncan’s devotion to the bonobos.
Wrote Jane Smiley for The Guardian, “It is the bonobos who
could save this plot, if Gruen had a stronger feel for the uniqueness
of each ape personality.”
Opined Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles, “The
800-pound gorilla in the room is why someone at Gruen’s new
publishing house didn’t give her the benefit of a good edit.”
–Debra J. White

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