Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ape House

The Book: Ape House

The Author: Sara Gruen

The Dealio: Gruen returns to a topic clearly close to her heart: the place where human experience intersects with animal existence. In this case, the animals in question are Great Apes (bonobos), who share a language lab in Lawrence, Kansas with a team of researchers and volunteers. The scientist closest to the bonobos is Isabel, a young woman with a toxic family history who considers the Great Apes at the lab to be her real family. A few pages into the story, the idyllic world of the language lab is literally blown apart- and Isabel is severely injured, by an explosion. The remainder of the book deals with the aftermath of the bombing, and what it means to all the characters involved- including the great apes who call the place 'home', Isobel, John Thigpen- a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (or 'the Inky', as it is called here), the other scientists and volunteers, even the protesters who line the drive of the lab daily, completely misunderstanding the mission of the place.

The Grading Session: 4.01 pengies out of 5. Let me start by saying that I absolutely loved Gruen's last book (Water For Elephants, which is being made into a movie, starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon). This time around, all the Gruen-esque touchstones are there- highly adorable creatures, moments of thoughtless and automatic animal cruelty, lessons in an arcane and minuscule segment of society (animal language labs in this case, circus life, in WFE), redemption in doing the right thing against all odds and adversities. But, where we were given real, live characters to root for in the last book, this time around I found myself losing patience with pretty much all of the humans- although I continued to enjoy our interactions with the bonobo 'family' to the very last word.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes, it is simply impossible to go back to the same- or a similar -well and squeeze out one more evocative tale. I am thinking here of Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Wall, which would have made a wonderful first look at the author's family, but felt both anemic and reckless coming, as it did, after The Glass Castle. Ape House suffers from the same situation. Perhaps, if I had never read Water For Elephants, I would have been in raptures over Ape House. But...probably not.
Next: If you think someone can be cruel and unfeeling towards animals, then be kind and caring towards humans, well, I have a bridge near NYC I can letcha have cheap.
Lastly: forgive me if I have said this before, but it bears repeating: editing is the most blessed of all careers; if done with style, appetite and care, it can transform a story- written or scrolled before our eyes, in a dark movie theatre- from everyday to extraordinary.

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