September 2010

Exploring animal instincts

By Sara Gruen
Share this Article:
Readers young and old are attracted to books that explore the mysterious and emotionally powerful human-animal bond, from Lassie Come Home to The Yearling, from Black Beauty to Seabiscuit. Sara Gruen’s affinity for the animal world lies at the core of her three earlier novels, including the best-selling Water for Elephants, which explored the life of a Depression-era circus and the animal caretaker who finds solace in both the human and animal companionship he discovers there.

In Ape House, Gruen furthers her study of this unique bond, this time portraying a group of six bonobo apes housed in the fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City and the humans who either come to love them or seek to profit from their surprisingly advanced communication skills. Led by Bonzi, the matriarch and undisputed leader, the bonobo group includes Sam, the charismatic oldest male, Jelani, an adolescent show-off, and Makena, “Jelani’s biggest fan,” who is pregnant and due any day. Isabel Duncan is a research scientist overseeing the bonobos and their unique ability to communicate via lexigrams on their computers, supplemented by American Sign Language. She actually feels safer and more loved in the presence of her bonobo charges than with most humans.


Gruen enlivens this charming story of their emotional bonding with multiple villains—including Isabel’s fiancé, the head of the Great Ape Language Lab, who she discovers has a history of animal cruelty and a desire to profit from the bonobos under his control. There's also a purveyor of porn who sees the bonobos as the perfect stars for his new reality TV show, enticing viewers with their healthy sex lives 24 hours a day. Ape House turns into a romp, but Gruen never loses the thread of the enviable bond Isabel has nurtured with her ape friends, as evidenced by the frantic message Makena taps on the TV show computer as she goes into labor: “make Isabel come.”


Gruen undertook extensive linguistics studies in preparation for this novel, and was then invited to be one of the few visitors to the real-life Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where six bonobos and six orangutans are housed. She describes that experience as “magical”—a word that could be used to describe her new novel as well.



Trending Reviews

Get the Book

Ape House

Ape House

By Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN 9780385523219

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!