Having loved Water for Elephants, I expected to like this book even after reading a being moderately disappointed by Riding Lessons, Sara Gruen's debut novel.
I thought that this would be about apes -- and in a way it was.
Surprisingly, it was also about relationships and what defines family -- mutual respect, caring, fidelity -- not blood ties nor even commonality of species. Also, unexpectedly this novel was also about exploitation and human moral bankruptcy.
Gruen is a master craftsman. In order to communicate the idea that apes are sentient beings she draws parallels between Isabel and the apes and John and Amanda. As Isabel is separated from the apes, John is separated from Amanda. Although their relationships with each other were good, the separation teaches them to value each other more, to treasure each other for their unique qualities.
Gruen also touches on the theme of reality television. Amanda would like to write scripts but is unable to earn a living because reality television costs much less to produce. It exploits the participants. "Networks used to produce a dozen dramas or comedies, hoping one might take. Now they produce a couple and fill up the rest of the time slots with stupid shows about stupid people apparently trying to find true love by having sex in a hot tub with a different person every night while the cameras roll." p. 32 Once again Gruen draws parallels with the apes who end up living in a house equipped with cameras recording and broadcasting their natural sexual promiscuity rather than highlighting their ability to communicate and make cognisant decisions.
Finally, Gruen addresses the use of animals in research. Isabel becomes a victim of extremists who denounce experiments on apes and mistakenly bomb her research facility. Sounds like Gruen is saying that animal research is fine. Wrong. She distinguishes between cruel experimentation and sensitive scientific inquiry.
In this novel, humans are morally inferior to apes. We undervalue our relationships, exploit each other's stupidity and take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Yeah us!