Spiegel & Grau
It's impossible not to compare Sara Gruen's most recent novel, Ape House, with her spectacular Water for Elephants, released in 2006. Both books focus on communication with animals, weave in a tangential theme of human romantic relationships and are highly evocative of time and place. But the strongest link is Gruen's use of melodrama--though her Snidely Whiplash-type characters--seemed much more at home in Water's 1930s travelling circus than in a modern-day language research lab.
Ape House is the story of Isabel Duncan, an earnest, conscientious scientist devoted to the six bonobo apes she studies. They communicate with one another through a combination of sign language and computer technology, a process that proves the bonobos are intelligent, insightful and compassionate. When the lab is bombed and the bonobos stolen, Isabel is physically and emotionally shattered, but determined to be reunited with her simian family.
Like Water for Elephants, Ape House is inhabited by good guys and villains. Fighting for truth and justice are: the scientist Isabel; the altruistic but undervalued journalist John Thigpen; the tattooed, militant lab assistant Celia, and a lovable Russian hooker named Ivanka. On the side of evil are Isabel's one-time fiance, Peter, John's conniving former colleague and the porn mogul who buys the bonobos to create a raunchy reality-TV show.
It's a shame that the bonobos are lost in the shuffle of the intense, heavily peopled plot. The sections describing their behaviour on the TV show are fascinating and heart-wrenching. Gruen has certainly done her homework here and crafts the bonobos and their touching use of language, with the vivid precision of a documentary filmmaker.
The story might be overwrought, the characters may be under-developed, but the novel is a page-turner, combining all the elements of a thriller with the seedy, enthralling underworld of celebrity, smut and tabloid paparazzi.
In Ape House, Gruen juggles a sprawling plot, clowns around with some laughable side characters (a dog named Booger, for one) and magically makes everything work out in the end, adding circus to the list of things that unite her two most recent novels.