‘Ape House’ is intense, intriguing mystery

Posted Sept. 26, 2010, at 5:57 p.m.

APE HOUSE by Sara Gruen

2010, Spiegel & Grau, Bond Street Books, $26, $32.95 Canada 320 pages

Why does it always happen?

You find a television show you like. The characters are appealing or irritating, in a good way. The story is exciting, the plot isn’t moronic, and it’s fun to rehash episodes with your co-workers the morning after.

And they cancel it. It always happens.

Maybe the show was too controversial. Maybe it got canceled because the ratings were low. Or maybe, as you’ll see in the new novel “Ape House” by Sara Gruen, it was canceled for more sinister reasons.

Among linguists and researchers, Kansas City’s Great Ape Language Lab was the source of stunned fascination. There, Isabel Duncan and her team worked with a group of bonobos that had been taught English and could speak through sign language. These apes — close relatives of their human mentors — were busy showing the world their thoughts and feelings, in near-complete sentences.

Smarting from his recent layoff from a New York City newspaper, John Thigpen hated his new job at the Philadelphia Inquirer, although this recent assignment in Kansas City infused him with excitement. It was thrilling to actually converse with another species. Meeting Isabel Duncan was just icing on the cake.

Outside the lab, protesters stood every day, misunderstanding the work that was happening inside. So when a bomb tore through the Great Ape Language Lab and Isabel Duncan was critically wounded, accusations whirled.

As Isabel lay in the hospital, recovering from her injuries, she hoped that her bonobos were safe. Her fiance, Peter, promised that he’d take care of them — but once the apes were captured from the tree in which they’d taken refuge after the bomb, not even Peter knew where the animals had been taken.

Isabel’s worst fears were confirmed all too quickly.

Deep in the New Mexico desert, porn king Ken Faulks had converted a house and furnished it with cameras so that TV and Internet viewers could laugh at the zany, madcap sex lives of simians. “Ape House” was addicting and controversial, and everybody watched it.

But Faulks didn’t truly know what he had on his hands, and he didn’t know that one of the apes was pregnant. He was also unaware that John Thigpen’s career rested on recovering the bonobos, and that Isabel Duncan would do anything to get her “family” back.

If you’re a fan of author Sara Gruen, you’re probably wondering if this book is as good as “Water for Elephants.”

The answer is yes, and no.

“Ape House” is a little bit intense, more like an intriguing mystery than not. While there is one small, silly, near-cliched plotline late in the story, Gruen’s tale is, overall, wonderfully complex and peopled with well-fleshed characters. Astute readers will notice that Gruen exhaustively researched bonobos and spent days at an Iowa lab, communing with apes. That devotion to detail allowed her to add authentic touches to this well-done novel.

If you were a crazy-fan for Gruen’s first novel, you’ll find “Ape House” to be a close second. Grab this book, settle in and you’ll be canceling plans.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.

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