Friday, January 14, 2011
There aren't many people tromping around these days that haven't at least HEARD of "Water for Elephants", Gruen's claim to fame. Maybe they've read the book or they are going to see the upcoming movie, or friends have been raving about it. Here lies the danger, however, for anything that the author writes from here on forward. There is a taste of success, there is pressure for more, and then things fall apart. Which is what seemed to happen in this case.
Synopsis: Our dual storyline starts off merged: The beautiful Isabel, a scientist at a Great Ape Language Lab, is showing off her eerily human, highly intelligent test subjects to reporter John Thigpen, who is enchanted by the experience. Thigpen goes back home to Philly, and that same day the Lab is bombed presumably by terroristic animal rights activists, seriously injuring Isabel and releasing the apes. Bad guys purchase the apes for nefarious purposes, which becomes evident through a public display of very bad taste.
Then our storylines separate for a bit. Thigpen's wife, an unsuccessful author, wants to try to her hand at writing a comedic series in Hollywood. Thigpen is miserable at his job as a newspaper reporter, particularly when an ambitious colleague "steals" his story on the apes. So they move to Los Angeles, Thigpen hires on at a tabloid, and chases down the ape story for himself.
Isabel goes through various stages of recuperation and depression. She breaks up with her slimy two-timing fiance. She longs to be with her apes. She finds out where they are and attempts to make contact.
Then things get...weird. Russian hookers. Exploding meth labs. A porn king. A homeless, farting pit bull. A paternity scare. And then a fairly predictable ending, all perfect and shiny and wrapped up with a big red bow.
My thoughts: I usually try to keep my synopsis fairly neutral but I failed this time. This whole thing went wrong in so many ways. The bad guys were caricatures, with crooked smiles and cold eyes and sinister statements. The plot wandered. Maybe the ape thing wasn't exciting or Hollywood enough, so Gruen had to throw in random action? It was like a twisted Disney movie.
There was a decent amount of seemingly factual information about the Bonobo Apes...their behavior, their ability to communicate through sign language, their higher intelligence. This was pretty fascinating stuff, although I kept asking myself silently "Is this realistic? Do Bonobos really act like this, with this much reason and emotion?". I never dug around on the Internet to obtain an answer to that question. I have to assume that Gruen did her homework. I guess my point is that the behavior of the apes in the book was just edgy enough that I wasted mental effort in wondering if it was truth or exaggeration.
If I hadn't been reading this book for my book club, I would have dropped this one like a hot potato.
A word about the audio production: The narrator for this production was Paul Boehmer, someone who appears to have been around the audiobook block, as well as a minor actor. Personally, however, I found him smarmy and a little too feminine-sounding and he made my skin crawl. I would not choose to listen to him again. I think it is important to note that this did not have any influence over my opinion of the book and its plot. The entire package did not meet my expectations.
Thoughts from the Heathrow Literary Society: This month at book club, it was my turn to facilitate the discussion, and I was worried that my 'tude would be evident. So I just kept quiet and let the people speak. I heard words like "superficial" and "weird" and "I'm indifferent". One member read the book a couple of months ago, and couldn't recall the name of a single character, and had forgotten about the Russian prostitutes. We all agreed the ape angle was interesting, but not enough to squeeze out more than a 2.5 or a 3 out of 5 stars from anyone at the table.
2 out of 5 stars