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Of apes and porn

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Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 4:29 pm

Maybe it's just me. But when I'm introduced to an author I haven't read before and am thoroughly captivated as I was reading 'Water for Elephants' - I tend to hold that author up to very high standards.

So when I got a copy of Sara Gruen's new book 'Ape House' as a birthday gift, I was eager to dig in and be captivated all over again. I waited until I had a quiet weekend and hunkered down all ready to be drawn into the magical world of bonobos (small chimps). I wasn't exactly disappointed, but I may have expected too much.

And it's hard to review this book without references to 'Water for Elephants.' That was a book that offered so many layers along with strong connections to the characters, including Rosie, the elephant that drove the plot of the book. 'Ape House' fell short of that kind of depth simply because I think the author was trying to rush through and fit too much into the pages.

The story revolves around a six bonobos living peacefully in a lab, very much like a family. The purpose of the lab is to study the language of the apes and their ability to converse in American Sign Language. They are tended by and very attached to a scientist named Isabel and her assistant who think of them as family and communicate easily. Says Isabel: "Over the years, they've become more human, and I've become more bonobo."

Along for the ride is a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer named John who happens to be doing a story on the apes shortly before the lab gets bombed, Isabel gets gravely injured, the apes escape and the story goes downhill.

As usually happens, chaos ensues and the apes end up in the possession of a porn entrepreneur who sets them up in a house full of cameras and creates a reality show based on their daily lives (doesn't that usually happen?). Their playfulness and open sexuality made them a prime target for this venue.

While John and Isabel are busy trying to fix their own lives while searching for lost apes, we're introduced to a mixed bag of colorful characters that would have been nice to get to know better. I could have done without the meth lab guys but the Russian hookers were interesting.  Some of the fringe eco-protesters were interesting enough to learn more about also.

While the story wraps up nicely, it felt rushed to me and I longed for more interaction with the bonobos. The author gave us a glimpse into their behavior and the magical feeling of communicating with them directly, but not enough. They were clearly the most likable characters in the book. Putting them on a reality TV show was definitely a snarky commentary of the times (of which I agree) - but I wanted more from these smart and funny creatures. In fact next to the bonobos my favorite bit player in the book was a rescued pit bull named "Booger."

None of this is meant to stop anyone from reading 'Ape House.' It's a decent read. And I'm not going to let this stop me from reading any of Gruen's earlier work either. I'm planning on reading her 2007 novel 'Riding Lessons' next. She's a dependable and inspired writer - and now I know what to expect.