Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Book cover of Ape House by Sara Gruen

First off, a massive thank you to Ellie from Musings of a Bookshop Girl for being wonderful enough to send this to me for Christmas because she loved it herself (her review is here). She also sent me the Pride and Prejudice DVD (the proper one, with Colin Firth) so that’s my Christmas Day all sorted! Anyway, gushing thank yous aside, I really can’t recommend Ape House highly enough.

Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn’t understand people, but animals she gets – especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she’s ever felt among humans… until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what’s really going on inside.

When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and “liberating” the apes, John’s human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he’ll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show, Ape House, featuring the missing apes, débuts under mysterious circumstances and immediately becomes the biggest – and unlikeliest – phenomenon in the history of modern media.
I had no idea that Ape House was written by the author of Water for Elephants until browsing Ellie’s blog a week or so ago. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on the multitude of comparative reviews I’ve come across, but if it’s even half as good as this book, I can’t wait. 

To be honest, I’ve never really been a massive fan of apes but I still loved this book. Obviously they feature heavily in the story, but it’s more about Isabel’s perseverance to save the animals she loves and the extent humans will go to achieve their own ends. It discusses both the terrible treatment of animals in entertainment and in laboratories, but also when animal rights activists take their protesting too far. My feelings towards bonobos and their primate relations have taken such a turn-around that I have a Firefox tab open this very minute for The Great Apes Trust to see what I can do to help.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone through such a range of strong emotions while reading one book. I had to keep putting down the book and staring off into space just to process what I’d just read. In fact, it’s so impossible trying to write this review without talking about what happens that I’m writing an e-mail to Ellie at the same so I can rant/rave without spoiling anything for anyone. I think my primary emotion was sheer horror – you know where you’re so shocked and disgusted at human nature that you get that tight, contracted feeling in the pit of your stomach? I particularly wanted to slap Cat Douglas – not a pathetic little tap, but a fully-fledged whack across her face. She and Peter have to be two of the best-written characters of all time.

Even without the drama, Ape House is fascinating. Ms Gruen has obviously put a lot of effort and time into researching the methods of communication between humans and apes. Basic American Sign Language is taught to the bonobos which they can then use to communicate with each other and with their human carers. They’re even intelligent enough to order products online with a simplified computer program. It just blew me away. Plus, it’s hardly just scientific babble – the facts and concepts are inserted so subtly into the storyline that you have no idea you’re being taught. I had no idea about any of this and I’ve already wishlist-ed the books the author recommended.

It’s a very intelligent book, but it’s very emotional and domestic at the same time. John and Isabel’s personal lives and problems are a major part of the book, and the thought of the actions of various characters actually kept me awake last night.

Long story short, it’s a wonderful, moving, compelling story with likeable characters and tangible issues. I’m dying to read Water for Elephants, but I don’t see how it can really improve on Ape House.

This book was:

You may also enjoy We Are All Completely Beside Ourselvesanother novel about chimps in laboratory settings. 


  1. Jana says:

    I have not heard of this book before! What an interesting and unique-sounding book! And yay for Pride & Prejudice! I love that mini-series. Have a Merry Christmas!

    – Jana @

  2. Ellie says:

    Oh, the raving! The joy! The thanksgiving! You're most welcome, I'm so glad you enjoyed it even if it did practically kill you along the way. (How is that blood pressure now, btw?) I'm not a massive fan of the great apes either – after I went to the zoo as a kid and got sick watching the gorillas eating their own banana-ey vomit *shudders and stops thinking about it, quick* – but I totally fell in love with the bonobos, especially Bonzi and baby Lola!

    Definitely looking forward to 'Water for Elephants' in 2012… 🙂

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