Fiction — audiobook. Read by Paul Boehmer. Books on Tape, 2010. 11 hours, 7 minutes. Library copy.
John Thigpen, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, traveled to Kansas to meet the bonobos — Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena — learning to communicate with computers and in American Sign Language for a study on language acquisition at the university’s Great Ape Language Lab. Intrigued by both the bonobos and the scientist who cares for them, John has begun to write his human interest piece when he learns the lab was bombed soon after he left the campus.
Isabel Dunan, the lab’s lead scientist, is in critical condition at a local hospital, the Earth Liberation League is claiming responsibility saying they wanted to liberate the apes for torturous lab experiments, and the university has secretly sold the traumatized apes to an unknown buyer. Isabel is desperate to find the bonobos — her only family — and John is desperate to tell the story, but his wife is pulling him towards Los Angeles as she chases down an unlikely dream, his editor is looking for any excuse to fire him, and the whole world is glued to their television screens watching the missing apes star in a new reality show were they order take-out, have copious amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come take them home.
Ethics of animal research and ecoterrorism, an introduction to language acquisition, commentary on the superficiality of Hollywood and the public’s fascination with reality television, marital problems and family drama — yes, Gruen tries to cram every bit of this into her novel and, unfortunately, it becomes too much for this story to carry. The brief mentions of Isabel’s estranged family, which is credited as driving her passion for both the lab and having the bonobos returned to her, are forgotten as Gruen focuses on Amanda, John’s wife, and her struggles to make it as a television writer in Hollywood after her first novel received very little attention upon publication.
There is also a subplot of whether or not John fathered a child seventeen years ago and whether or not he and Amanda should have children that distracted from the main characters of the story — Isabel and the bonobos — and the main questions of the novel — who bombed the lab and how will Isabel get the bonobos back?
It is unfortunate that Gruen felt a need to include so many subpar subplots because her novel began with such promise and starred six intriguing, non-human characters I would have loved to learn more about. With so many twists and turns, I had no idea where the novel would end up but I finished it think the book was merely okay and ready to start something new.