Synopses & Reviews
Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships — but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.
Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn't understand people, but animals she gets — especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she's ever felt among humans... until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what's really going on inside.
When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and liberating the apes, John's human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he'll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggest — and unlikeliest — phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda.
Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen's place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before.
"Gruen enjoys minimal luck in trying to recapture the magic of her enormously successful Water for Elephants in this clumsy outing that begins with the bombing of the Great Ape Language Lab, a university research center dedicated to the study of the communicative behavior of bonobo apes. The blast, which terrorizes the apes and severely injures scientist Isabel Duncan, occurs one day after Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen visits the lab and speaks to the bonobos, who answer his questions in sign language. After a series of personal setbacks, Thigpen pursues the story of the apes and the explosions for a Los Angeles tabloid, encountering green-haired vegan protesters and taking in a burned-out meth lab's guard dog. Meanwhile, as Isabel recovers from her injuries, the bonobos are sold and moved to New Mexico, where they become a media sensation as the stars of a reality TV show. Unfortunately, the best characters in this overwrought novel don't have the power of speech, and while Thigpen is mildly amusing, Isabel is mostly inert. In Elephants, Gruen used the human-animal connection to conjure bigger themes; this is essentially an overblown story about people and animals, with explosions added for effect. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Gruen's astute, wildly entertaining tale of interspecies connection is a novel of verve and conscience." (Starred Review) Booklist
"[Ape House] is fun, in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink way: headlong and over-the-top.... [T]errific: an incisive piece of social commentary." New York Times
"Gruen's achievement is...significant not only in illuminating the darkest corners of animal research but also in showing the depth of human-animal relationships.... A perfectly plotted good read." Library Journal
After the extraordinary success of Water for Elephants
, with 3 million copies shipped, Sara Gruen returns with another immensely charming, endlessly surprising, and engaging novel in which a family of apes teaches us what it means to be human.
Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants has become one of the most beloved and bestselling novels of our time. Now Gruen has moved from a circus elephant to family of bonobo apes. When the apes are kidnapped from a language laboratory, their mysterious appearance on a reality TV show calls into question our assumptions about these animals who share 99.4% of our DNA.
A devoted animal lover, Gruen has had a life-long fascination with human-ape discourse, and a particular interest in Bonobo apes. She has studied linguistics and a system of lexigrams in order to communicate with apes, and is one of the few visitors who has been allowed access to the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where the apes have come to love her. In bringing her experience and research to bear on this novel, she opens the animal world to us as few novelists have done.
Ape House is a riveting, funny, compassionate, and, finally, deeply moving new novel that secures Sara Gruen's place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before.
Gruen's Water for Elephants has become one of the most beloved and bestselling novels of our time. Now the author has moved from a circus elephant to a family of bonobo apes kidnapped from a language laboratory and their mysterious appearance on a reality TV show. (Literary Fiction)
About the Author
Sara Gruen is the author of the #1 bestselling novel Water for Elephants, as well as the bestseller Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. She shares her North Carolina home with her own version of a blended family: a husband, three children, four cats, two dogs, two horses, and a goat. In order to write her latest novel, Ape House, Gruen studied linguistics and a system of lexigrams so that she could communicate directly with the bonobos living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. She now considers them to be part of her extended family, and, according to the bonobos, the feeling is mutual.
Reading Group Guide
What does the success of the show Ape House reveal about human society? Why do you think its audience finds it especially compelling? How does it compare to the other types of media discussed in the novel?
The bonobos in Ape House are described as matriarchal, with Bonzi acting as the nurturing and intelligent “undisputed leader” (p. 6) of the group. Discuss how Bonzi’s relationship with her family compares or contrasts with the various human characters’ relationships with their own mothers. Consider Amanda’s desire—and Ivanka’s—to have children in your discussion.
Why is Isabel so attached to the bonobos? What does she enjoy about their company (and that of Stuart, her late fish) that other people do not offer her? What prevents her from connecting at the beginning, and how does that change by the end?
Isabel says “[the bonobos] know they’re bonobos and they know we’re human, but it doesn’t imply mastery, or superiority” (p. 10). The bonobos are clearly sentient animals, demonstrating the use of both language and tools, two criteria often cited as proof of the separation between humans and other primates. What, then, actually separates us from them?
“At this moment, the story in his head was perfect. [John] also knew from experience that it would degenerate the second he started typing, because such was the nature of writing” (p. 215). John and Amanda are both writers who struggle to maintain integrity while making a living. Discuss the importance of writing, language, and creativity in the novel, as well as the compromises the characters are forced to accept.
In Ape House, Sara Gruen uses humor to reveal the many flaws of human society. Is this device effective for revealing human foibles? Did you identify with her portrayal of human behavior?
Which of the human characters in Ape House is most like a bonobo?
Contrast the physical and emotional transformations of Isabel and Amanda. What are the reasons for their change? How does it affect both of them and their relationships with the other characters?
Do you think the use of animals for research, even when it does not physically or emotionally harm them, is an inherent infringement upon the animal’s free will, as the ELL would argue? Or is there a way for animal-related research to be beneficial to human society while also protecting and respecting the animals’ rights? Discuss how Ape House explores the different sides of this issue.
10. Over the course of the novel, John grows increasingly concerned about the possibility of having fathered a child with Ginette Pinegar, while Isabel doesn’t understand why a biological link to the boy should make a difference. For the bonobos, on the other hand, the concept of paternity is irrelevant. Discuss the way Ape House deals with family structures.
Compare the bonobos’ behavior with that of the humans in the novel. Do you think of human behavior differently after reading the novel?