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Ape House

October 25, 2011
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Last weekend we had about 28 hours of driving to do, so I went to the library and checked out some audiobooks I thought everybody might like. We started Sara Gruen’s Ape House the day we left Iowa for Missouri (the shortest leg of the journey, only a 7-hour day of driving), and by the end of that day’s drive, the kids were already referring to it as “the torture.” We’d get back on the road after a stop, and they’d groan and say “turn on the torture again; we have to get those animals back home!” We listened to it a little more on our final day’s drive from Missouri back to Ohio, but when it became clear that we couldn’t stand hearing the story at the pace of the audiobook reader, we finally decided to find a copy of it when we got home and skim through it to see how it ends.

You know, I’m sympathetic to the animal rights cause; I think animals should not be bought and sold. But this is one of those books that gives the cause a bad name. Everything that made Water for Elephants a good novel worked against this one. It was predictable. The bad guy was really, really bad. The animals were really, really good. But in Ape House, unlike Water for Elephants, we couldn’t find any characters to like.

The character who irritated us the most was one named Amanda. She was an aspiring writer who obviously represented the novelist, and she cried at everything. At the end of the week after we’d quit listening to “the torture,” someone gave me a compliment and Eleanor inquired sweetly if I were going to cry about it, like Amanda does when someone tells her she looks good in makeup and a new dress:
“’You look so good!” sang Li. “I didn’t recognize you!’
Amanda realized Li was indeed talking to her. She paused, her face frozen into a mask of horror. After a moment she said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked stiffly back to the table. When she sat, she leaned toward John, her eyes bright with hurt. ‘You know, I have to believe she meant that as a compliment, but I don’t think there’s any good way to take it.’”

Amanda is not the only idiot obsessed with appearance in the novel. Even the main character, a brainy bonobo-studying scientist named Isabel, gets all bent out of shape about the way her broken nose is restructured by a plastic surgeon. Everyone is judged by appearance. The animal rights protestor has green hair and throws someone else’s plate in a restaurant because it has bacon on it. The boyfriend who lets Isabel’s fish die while she’s in the hospital has a heart at least two sizes too small. The overbearing mother cooks with Velveeta and comes into her daughter’s marital bedroom in the middle of the night to administer cough syrup. The scary meth lab pit bull turns out to be a total sweetheart when he crawls into a stranger’s motel bed in the middle of the night.

There were parts that made me, my 18-year-old daughter, and my 15-1/2-year-old son burst out laughing simultaneously. One was this: “Minutes later, at the critical moment, Amanda leaned in and whispered, “Let’s make a baby.’ The effect was immediate and horrifying.” But that one depends, to some extent, on cumulative effect. Other bits that made us laugh are just bad writing:  “She had given herself to him too quickly, too completely, and in return he had dashed her world to pieces.”

Ape House is one of the worst books I’ve ever listened to or read. I will have to work hard to get my family to try the next audiobook I pick up at the library, after inflicting that one on them.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2011 7:02 am


    I’m still living down a movie I suggested in the early days of dating Kent nine years ago. It was some Jet Li movie, I don’t remember the name or maybe I don’t want to remember the name. But it was dreadful and he brings up how awful it was from time to time–just to yank on my non-existent pigtails.

    • October 25, 2011 8:10 am

      I think this book may also be a measure for future badness.

  2. October 25, 2011 7:22 am

    HAHAHA, this sounds AWESOME. I want to read this aloud on a camping trip with my girls!

  3. October 25, 2011 8:03 am

    Why on earth did you choose this at all, with shelves full of audio books from which to select?

    • October 25, 2011 8:09 am

      Because we all loved the audiobook of Water for Elephants. We listened to it on more than one car trip.

  4. October 25, 2011 8:25 am

    I think I’ll pass on the book, but your review was a pleasure to read!

    • October 25, 2011 8:47 am

      So glad you enjoyed it! I was so disappointed by this book that I’m afraid I didn’t even get my full snark on.

  5. freshhell permalink
    October 25, 2011 9:01 am

    Wow. How disappointing. I listened to Water for Elephants on audiobook and enjoyed to a certain degree but there were bits that were just as badly written as the things you mention above. But, over all, it was a good book. Saw the movie which was perfectly fine, too. I wonder whether she wrote this before WFE and thus was able to produce a second novel after the success of the first without much effort. Sounds a bit too preachy to me, something I hate even when I agree with the cause. I’ve listened to a lot of horrible things but if you want to hear the worst? Find that Book of the Dead I sent you (*ahem*) on audiobook for your next trip. It’ll have you all shrieking and laughing so hard you drown in your own tears. It far surpasses “bad” or even “tragic” in its unintentional comedy of bad writing.

    • October 25, 2011 9:10 am

      We don’t really enjoy bad writing on audio! But this really might be the week for me to get out that book you sent me and positively wallow in badness, because then my full snark would soon rise to the surface like cream.

      • freshhell permalink
        October 25, 2011 11:20 am

        But you might enjoy this because it surpasses bad and enters a special realm all its own.

      • trapunto permalink
        October 25, 2011 1:10 pm

        -“We don’t really enjoy bad writing on audio!”


        • October 25, 2011 9:36 pm

          Some people like to enter that “special realm” of really appalling badness.

  6. October 25, 2011 1:12 pm

    I loved Water for Elephants and I’ve heard from so many people that this one is awful. I’ve definitely decided to avoid it compeltely.

  7. October 25, 2011 7:14 pm

    I couldn’t even get into Like Water for Elephants. I’m currently using it to hold up my bedside lamp.

    • October 25, 2011 9:38 pm

      Harriet, I think (like lots of others), you’re confusing the title with Like Water for Chocolate. Anyway, the audiobook of Water for Elephants is quite good.

  8. October 25, 2011 9:22 pm

    Well, your review gets five stars for its entertainment value. I’m glad you took one for the team, so we can while away the hours conferrin’ with the flowers and consultin’ with the rain.

    • October 25, 2011 9:39 pm

      Glad you were entertained. Wait until I get more of my snark on, with this book Freshhell sent…

      • October 25, 2011 10:57 pm

        I eagerly await the Snark turned up to full bore.

      • Aliso permalink
        October 26, 2011 10:34 pm

        I sense a new blog subtitle: reading dreck so you don’t have to.

        • October 27, 2011 8:28 am

          ooh! That could be a regular feature here, couldn’t it? What a good idea!

        • Mumsy permalink
          October 27, 2011 8:37 am

          *cracks up* I love this idea.

  9. October 26, 2011 6:25 pm

    I’m not surprised, for I did not care for Water for Elephants. “In return he dashed her world to pieces” sounds like the sort of accusation one soap opera character would level against another soap opera character. In fact I can practically hear Reva Shayne saying this to her long-lost son after he slept with his cousin Tammy without telling her they were cousins. Oh soap operas. I miss soap operas. Why did they take them away fro me??

    (Hm, this comment took a turn.)

    • October 26, 2011 9:36 pm

      The level of soap opera-ish dialogue was pretty consistent throughout, which contributed to the cumulative effect of our laughter. Somehow, though, the funniest thing (after the “let’s make a baby” moment) was the compliment. Any possible back-handedness was hidden from us, and we’re used to that southern method of communication where Grandmother looks at the butter and you know you’d better pass it, pronto (my example is drawn from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant).

  10. October 29, 2011 12:00 pm

    You’ve settled it, Jeanne. I’m not reading The Ape House. While I enjoyed Water For Elephants, the reviews on The Ape House are so mixed I have put off reading it. Now I’ll just make that permanent. Thanks for the review!

    • October 30, 2011 9:19 pm

      So glad to have saved you the disappointment! Maybe she’ll write a next one and it will be better.

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