I never read Water for Elephants. It made a huge splash. It was recommended highly by people I know with excellent taste. It was written by a fellow NaNoWriMo participant. It even has elephants. And still, I never found the time to read it. So when an advanced copy of Sara Gruen’s new novel, Ape House, showed up in a box of goodies I snatched it up tout de suite. I was not going to miss the boat again. I have to say I’m glad I finally got on board.
I have a tendency to soak up fast-paced action packed media. I like explosions, car chases, and wise cracking anti-heroes. This book has none of that. Okay, I lied. It has an explosion. The book literally gets going with a bang. And from that point forward I was hooked. Car chases or no.
I would warn that this review has spoilers, but the main engine of the book is not the plot. On the surface it is a simple story: Woman teaches apes to communicate. Man meets apes and has a change of perspective. Woman loses apes. Woman, and Man, quest to get apes back. Nothing world shattering here. Fortunately the real heart of the story isn’t the plot. The plot is a skeleton to hang all the good meaty stuff on. And the meaty stuff is plentiful.
The people, and indeed the apes, are the real show stealers in Ape House. Every minute decision, feeling, conversation, and thought all add depth to the people of the story. The main characters are John Thigpen the journalist, his wife Amanda the failing author, and Isabel, who regards the apes as family. Then there are all of the secondary characters. Scientists. Rivals. Opportunists. And they all have their own problems and unique ways of interacting with the world. Also, let us not forget the apes, who have their own personalities and desires. All of these varied people become real throughout the crafting of the novel, and it is their lives that captivated me. It was one of those rare books that left me wondering about the characters when I was finished.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the greatest triumph of Ape House isn’t the characters, or even that I found it thoroughly entertaining. It lies in the fact that it shows so much by saying so little. Over and over it shows us our nature, and the nature of our ape cousins. This is a book that makes no effort to conceal its agenda. It shows us how very human the great apes can be. More interesting however is that it also shows how very ape we humans can be. By the end of the book man and animal become indistinct. And therein lies the argument the book makes so eloquently: are we really so different? And if we aren’t, then what?
I must say I am both reluctant and excited to pass on my copy of Ape House. It seems a shame to give it up, but I can’t wait to talk to someone else about it. The hole it has left on my shelf has been filled though - I’m pleased to say I picked up a copy of Water for Elephants. I feel confident this time I will get around to it.