Sara Gruen’s first novel, Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), was (and is) a huge success with both teen and adult readers. It was also an Alex Award winner.
A few years ago, I had an interesting request. We were discussing what to read next in student bookgroup, and a senior asked that we choose something she could talk about with her parent’s friends and guests, something popular and a good conversation piece. That was a first! We ended up with Water for Elephants.
Of course, interest is high for Gruen’s second novel, Ape House.
Appeal factors for teens? For those interested in bonobos, this will hit the mark. Their scenes are the most affecting. The reality TV show will appeal. Many teens will be angered by the treatment of the animals and fascinated by the facts about human-ape communication.
Come to think of it, human-animal communication played a role in Water for Elephants too – didn’t we all love the moment when Jacob figures out the secret of communicating with Rosie the elephant?
Adult/High School–Gruen’s modern-day story features bonobo apes, a species that shares 98% of humans’ DNA and is capable of learning human language. The story is told from two points of view. Isabel is a university scientist who studies bonobos in captivity and considers them her family. John is a reporter writing a feature story on the apes. On the day following his visit, the facility is stormed by what appear to be animal activists. Isabel is severely injured, and the apes are sold to a mystery organization. They reappear as part of Ape House, a TV reality show that broadcasts their actions 24/7, frequent sexual encounters and all. As the program becomes a hit, John finds himself reduced to writing for a tabloid paper in Los Angeles, trying to find his way back to the action. Isabel, desperate to reunite with the bonobos, descends on the TV compound looking for a way to shut down the program. As in Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), Gruen once again gives her novel texture with colorful secondary characters, but in this book, the appeal is clearly centered on the apes themselves. Although there are no teen characters, there is enough humor and drama to keep teens involved in the fate of the apes and the people who care for them. Readers interested in learning more about bonobos can try Vanessa Woods’s Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo (Penguin, 2010).–Priscille Dando, Robert E. Lee High School, Fairfax County, VA