Animal characters live in ‘Ape House’

By Alison Lobron
Globe Correspondent / September 7, 2010

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Isabel Duncan and John Thigpen share a problem. Both are highly upstanding professionals whose desire to do good work in their chosen fields is thwarted by corporate interests, rocky romantic relationships, and ruthless colleagues. Isabel, a research scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, is devoted to the well-being of the six bonobos in her care and confused by her fiance, Peter. John, a journalist struggling in a climate of shrinking newsroom budgets, wants nothing more than to write about the bonobos in a respectful way and to please his troubled wife, Amanda.

As the dual protagonists of Sara Gruen’s fourth novel, Isabel and John soon find their worlds colliding. Isabel’s bonobos are stolen, only to turn up on a reality TV show called (you guessed it) “Ape House.’’ Isabel is determined to rescue the apes while John is determined to overcome a too-wicked-to-be-true rival in order to cover the story. Told in alternating chapters with points of convergence, their tales make for a lively, well-paced novel — albeit one in which the animals are more convincing than the humans.

Isabel is interestingly quirky, but her engagement to fellow scientist Peter never quite rings true. We’re told, “Isabel had never fallen so fast and so hard’’ as she did for her colleague, yet it’s difficult to think of two fictional lovers with less on-the-page chemistry. They speak to each other the way most of us talk to strangers in a grocery store — a problem, given that the purported passion between them drives one crucial aspect of the plot.

Meanwhile, John is torn between his desire to do good journalism and his determination to make his wife happy — even if it means moving to a city where he has no job prospects. He is a likable character, but in his almost pathological patience and husbandly devotion he seems to have wandered out of a chick-lit novel. He feels guilty after experiencing sexual attraction to a woman other than his wife, never mind that he was asleep and dreaming at the time. And even though they face financial stress, when Amanda buys a pair of $760 shoes only to complain that they hurt her feet, John offers her a glass of wine and a foot rub.

As she showed in her 2006 bestseller, “Water for Elephants,’’ Gruen has a knack for pacing and for creating distinctive animal characters. Scenes involving the bonobos are winsome without being sappy, and the reader comes to share Isabel’s concern for the animals. Indeed, the individuality of each bonobo makes the flatness of some of the human relationships all the more disappointing.

That’s especially true since this novel lacks the magical setting — a Depression-era circus — that was one of the great pleasures of “Water for Elephants.’’ In that slightly surreal world, the fact that certain characters were either too good or too bad to be true made sense, much in the way a fairy tale makes sense. But “Ape House’’ puts the reader squarely in the here and now of newspaper layoffs, reality TV, and other modern indignities. It’s harder to overlook unconvincing relationships and characters in a world we know well.

Still, in their good-heartedness, both John and Isabel are easy characters to root for. And they are on the side of the bonobos, whose adventures in television fame make for lively reading. Fans of “Water for Elephants’’ are likely to enjoy Gruen’s latest foray into the animal kingdom — especially if they don’t expect too much from the humans.

Alison Lobron is a writer in Arlington and can be reached at

APE HOUSE By Sara Gruen

Spiegel & Grau, 306 pp., $26