Ape House, the new novel by Sara Gruen, is actually two stories revolving around the bonobo apes which are a part of the Great Ape Language Lab. Dr. Isabel Duncan has dedicated her life to her apes, which she considers family; John Thigpen is a struggling reporter assigned to write a story about them. When an explosion destroys the Lab and Isabel is gravely injured, the worst calamity that can happen does: the apes are sold to a man whose sole objective is to create a reality television show based on their lives and antics. Isabel's recovery becomes as much about retrieving her "family" as about physical healing; John, while battling his own career, finds himself caught up in the resulting media circus as he investigates just how the apes were acquired for Ape House.
There's a lot going on in Ape House, and it's usually inter-connected. Isabel's fiance, Peter, is a shady character from the start, and his actions only get murkier as the story unfolds. John's wife Amanda, also a writer, succumbs to the pressure of Hollywood's superficiality when she moves alone to L.A. to pursue her career. John's integrity is questioned; Isabel's life falls apart. Things degenerate and the apes very survival becomes unknown. And perhaps upon reflection, this is the biggest issue I have with Ape House: focus. Are we most worried about the apes, Isabel's recovery, John's marriage or his career?
Ape House is engaging, fun, and well written, and I really enjoyed the characterizations, even if a couple (Ivanka? Celia?) were over the top. John and Isabel are both entirely believable, if terribly gullible. It's a fast read and the bad guys are never really in question. The ending, however, is very rushed, with a couple of plots (Isabel's love life; John's jail stay) glossed over irritatingly. The true stars of the story, however, are the apes themselves. Gruen's research is impeccable and she's a master at writing animals. I just would like her to stick with a theme and play it out to its ultimate conclusion without throwing in the kitchen sink along the way. Still, I'm rounding up from 3.5 stars for overall enjoyment and my delight in the bonobo apes.