Ape House is the fourth novel of Sara Gruen. It relates the story of a group of bonobos living in the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City under the immediate direction of scientist Isabel Duncan. These six apes are quite adept in using American Sign Language to express their thoughts, wishes and interactive relations with humans. When the Laboratory is the target of a violent explosion, apparently by animal rights activists, Isabel Duncan is severely injured. The six bonobos escape, soon resurfacing in New Mexico as the prime time stars of Ape House, a reality TV show produced by Ken Foulks, a stereotypically evil TV mogul. The bonobos and the show become a controversial hit and the immediate bane of a still recuperating Isabel.

Covering the Great Ape Language Lab pre-explosion as a feature story, print reporter John Thigpen follows them from their first home in the language lab to their TV residence. Meanwhile he is undergoing his own domestic turmoil with his wife Amanda, a frustrated novelist who is also less than happy with their marriage. The novel follows these twin threads - the trajectory of the bonobos from protected apes in a nourishing research environment to exploited animals, and the sturm und drang, both marital and career, of John and Amanda Thigpen. While millions of TV viewers watch the bonobos playing house and enjoying the "generous amounts of sex"? (as described by the book jacket), Isabel tries to regain ownership and protector status of her bonobos, whom she considers family.

Without divulging the denouement of the novel, suffice it to say that Isabel is successful in renewing her mater familias status of the apes, and John Thigpen gets a huge journalistic scoop as well. In the process, he and Isabel find true love and happiness, but not with each other, as coyly but falsely suggested earlier in the book. For everyone except Isabel's first love interest, Dr. Peter Benton, and Ken Foulks, the book ends on a very happy note.


Ape House is an attempt to combine two stories. Although it makes an effort to depict the bonobos as an intelligent life form worthy of the same protection and consideration as other entities capable of intelligent and abstract thought and communication of this thought, it suffers from a jarring lack of harmony between the threads of bonobos as persons and the potboiling story of the careers and marriage of John and Amanda Thigpen.

The good news is that Ms. Gruen has invested a great deal of time and research in studying bonobos and American Sign Language and successfully portrays them as intelligent animals who are able to communicate their abstract thoughts and immediate wishes at least as successfully as human children. They are clearly persons if one defines persons as intelligent entities with unique constellations of wishes, personalities, values, likes and dislikes with all the emotions and thoughts we expect of those entities we are more accustomed to calling persons, i.e., humans. In fact the word "personhood" is mentioned (but never developed) and the status of these six bonobo-persons (my word) in the novel as endangered persons is convincing, albeit superficially, argued.

The domestic travails of John and Amanda Thigpen and their respective careers unfortunately read like soap opera most of the time and are rendered with a style one can only call €œmagazine-slick€?, which, perhaps appealing as one-liners in the description of items in L L Bean catalogs, quickly becomes annoying for an extended work like a novel. The scenes with the bonobos are more sensitively handled. However, there is never a great deal of congruence between these two threads - bonobo-drama and human-angst -  resulting, ultimately, in a failure on both accounts since the author can't decide which story she wishes to tell, having failed to unite them in a way that makes for a believable single story. Is Ape House a popular romance about the careers and loves of a journalist and his novelist wife, or is it a book about bonobos and our responsibilities as humans to intelligent beings that deserve our protection every bit as much as a human child?
Although bonobos seem to be all the rage in fiction (see Lucy in this database), a novel using them as the basis of a more serious treatment of our ethical obligations to non-human persons remains to be written. Nonetheless, like Lucy, Ape House offers the raw materials for those students of personhood in all its variegated representations and for those interested in the very realistic exploitation of intelligent and sentient beings not protected to the same extent as humans by law or even enjoying the ethical stance due humans in present-day society.


Spiegel & Grau

Place Published

New York, New York


First Edition, 2010

Page Count